Friday, May 31, 2013

Notebook (Henry James, William James, John La Farge, &c.)

Henry James, c. 1862
(Portrait by John La Farge)

Used to be, back in my quasi-conscientious days, when the onslaught of spur-of-the-moment improvisatory doodling existed only in the usual reveries of synaptic hazard spouted by any grandeur-struck mythomane, and I routinely made semi-coherent piles—in lieu of the recent chaos of nonce imperturbables—with a welcome malfeasance in a space (my island) just made for such slub knottings-up sub specie aeternitatis, and expelling thus the foetid earthly breezes with a rump hurricano of ungodly afflatus—used to be,—I say,—Fridays beckoned with a surcease, a diminuendo, a parry: no more preternaturally fictious adherency, the “assemblagist to the heavenly cohort” is a ruse, plus de mots idiots. Fat Ben Jonson’d stop by, muttering through sepia-colored teeth and imperfect Latinates: “Wee say it is a fleshy style, when there is much Periphrases, and circuit of words; and when with more then enough, it growes fat and corpulent; Arvina orationis, full of suet and tallow.” (Arvina orationis meaning, literally, “bacon speech” . . .) Or that morose and severely contained box of a man Henry James’d aver, rather plainly, that “story-tellers” (“an illogical, loose-thinking, ill-informed race”) ought concur in the reining in of such untoward reaches: “It is, of course, not well for people of imagination to have the divine faculty constantly snubbed and cross questioned and held to an account: but when once it is strong and lusty, it is very well that it should hold itself responsible to certain uncompromising realities.” (One suspects a congenital tameness provoked the note. In a 27 December 1869 letter to brother William—“Beloved Bill,—” it begins—written in Rome, James admits: “I never manage to write but a very small fraction of what has originally occurred to me. What you call the ‘animal heat’ of contemplation is sure to evaporate within half an hour . . .”)

Fit of the gods, fit of the ghosts. William James, out of a 3 January 1868 letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (“My dear Wendle,—”), written in Berlin and opening with lines by Heinrich Heine (out of “Die Lorelei”—Mark Twain, who, in “The Awful German Language” (1880) suggests it—the language—“ought to be gently and reverentlset aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it”—translated Heine’s lines thus: “I cannot divine what it meaneth, / This haunting nameless pain”):
Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten, dass ich so traurig bin, tonight. The ghosts of the past all start from their unquiet graves and keep dancing a senseless whirligig around me so that, after trying in vain to read three books, to sleep, or to think, I clutch the pen and ink and resolve to work off the fit by a few lines to one of the most obtrusive ghosts of all—namely the tall and lank one of Charles Street . . .

What’s put me lately to ransacking the James’s letters: J. C. Hallman’s Wm & H’ry: Literature, Love, and the Letters between William & Henry James. A curiously misleading book in some spots. Hallman, writing of William’s looking at John La Farge’s paintings:
Outside of stories, he wanted nothing left in the background. This was made apparent in 1869, when Wm wrote to H’ry of visiting John La Farge to view several paintings then still under way. One in particular, Paradise Valley, a broad image of green fields near Newport, absolutely frayed Wm’s nerves. The painting had begun with a large female figure situated in the foreground, a white-draped presence occupying almost two-thirds of the large canvas.
      Sometime during the work on the piece, La Farge had been moved to paint over the figure completely, leaving only the background and a tiny baby sheep. Wm couldn’t get his head around it. He understood the landscape, which was “as big as all out doors and flooded with light even in its botchy state.” But he couldn’t begin to fathom why La Farge had eliminated the woman in the foreground. “He ought to repaint a figure in it no matter how ‘quaint’ it will look to the vulgar.”
The pertinent lines out of William James’s letter (2 October 1869):
I spent a very pleasant 24 hrs. at Jno l. F.’s. He had been in very good physical condition but a bad diarrhoea on the Hudson River had undone him again temporarily. Of new things he had to show me non multa but on the whole multum. I dont know whether you have seen them. 1 Portrait of Dick Hunt’s son, unfinished and very handsome in color &c, but on the whole sentant trop la photographie, which I suspect played a good part in its production. 2 his big landscape of the gorge. A most honest, solid bit of study fm. nature, with less of his subjectivity than anything else of his I know. Full of light & splendor, and it kept “growing” on me all the time I was there. There is an immense amount of labor in it, and it must have taught him a great deal, which will be some consolation if it brings nothing to his pocket. It wants some man or animal in the foreground. 3 a vast green landscape of the fields near Paradise, originally meant as background to a white figure but with the latter painted out. Also as big as all out doors and flooded with light even in its botchy state. He ought to repaint a figure in it no matter how “quaint” it will look to the vulgar. 4 a woman sleeping in a flowered (japanese) dress so cool in color & definite in treatment that I should hardly have suspected who painted it. The large, fat weighty figure is admirably drawn—rarely have I seen a better rendering of the way a supine person sinks into her chair. John seems very cheerful but the total impression of the visit was a sad one. I got an equally vivid impression of the depth of his talent (you’ve no idea of the pure splendor of some of those things) and of his destitution of that vulgar cleverness neccessary to make it available. It’s really pitiful—the trouble he has to give himself to produce anything , and the shilly shally fumbling of his whole movement—made tenfold greater by his physical feebleness . . .
Of “frayed . . . nerves,” nothing. Though La Farge’s painting is certainly apt to induce a splendid vertigo.

John La Farge, “Paradise Valley,” 1866-68

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Notebook (Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Henry James, &c.)

William James, c. 1859
(Portrait by John La Farge)

Stob-end of moon plugging the upturned basin of the sky. Swashy brushwork of clouds, the bowl’s scum and froth. Or the way the red-bellied woodpecker fell straight into the grass, its flat red helmet, its barred zebrine back. Emerson, out of the Journals:
      We feel—do we not?—that every one of those remarkable effects in landscape which occasionally catch & delight the eye, as, for example, a long vista in woods, trees on the shore of the lake coming quite down to the water, a long reach in a river, a double or triple row of uplands or mountains seen one over the other, and whatever of the like has much affected our fancy, must be the rhetoric of some thought not yet detached for the conscious intellect.
No. Though the “catch” invariably provokes the sentence-ry. Niggling the delivery, how mimic that percept? The woodpecker long ago propelled up into the oaks, the human beast still weighing a ponderancy of vocables, a preposterous lingo of ciphers and naughts. Emerson’s contradictory mayhem. In the entry, too (7 October 1840):
The life of man is the true romance which when it is valiantly conducted, and all the stops of the instrument opened, will go nigh to craze the reader with anxiety, wonder, & love. I am losing all relish for books . . . I have been writing with some pains Essays on various matters as a sort of apology for my apparent idleness. But the poor work has looked poorer daily as I strove to end it. My genius seemed to quit me in such a mechanical work, a seeming wise,—a cold exhibition of dead thoughts. When I write a letter to any one whom I love, I have no lack of words or thoughts: I am wiser than myself & read my paper with the pleasure of one who receives a letter, but what I write to fill up the gaps of a chapter is hard & cold, is grammar & logic; there is no magic in it; I do not wish to see it again.
To write “to any one whom I love”—that crucible (see The Book of Quinte Essence: “and in þe corusible ȝe schal fynde þe gold calcyned and reducid into erþe”)—is to mete out what’s immeasurable, that excess, that satiety, that “gleep-gleep in the conglomerate goo.” So Shakespeare (what Louis Zukofsky begins Bottom: On Shakespeare with) out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
‘. . . and yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays; the more the pity that some honest neighbours will not make them friends. Nay, I can gleek upon occasion.’
‘Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind,
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind . . .’

William James, out of the “Attention” chapter of The Principles of Psychology (1890):
Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground—intelligible perspective, in a word. It varies in every creature, but without it the consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive.
And, out of a 24 August 1872 letter—James is in Scarboro, Maine—to Henry James (in Switzerland):
. . . Nature as to its essence is the same anywhere, and many nervous puckers which were in my mind when I left Cambridge in July have been smoothed out gently & fairly by the sweet influences of many a lie on a hill top at mt. Desert with sky & sea & Islands before me, by many a row, and a couple of sails, and by my bath and siesta on the blazing sand this morn. But I envy ye the world of Art. Away from it, as we live, we sink into a flatter blanker kind of consciousness, and indulge in an ostrich-like forgetfulness of all our richest potentialities—and they startle us now and then when by accident some rich human product, pictorial, literary, or architectural slaps us with its tail. I feel more and more as if I ought to try to learn to sketch in water-colours . . .
Always the danger of that “gray chaotic indiscriminateness” (and the dull and epurating note of “Nature . . . the same anywhere”). Art, its inoculatory boost. And note just how crocodilian and wild—belying that “essence”—art’s “rich human product” is . . . For Henry James’s part—he who’d written to William (9 April 1873) of how he’d “been in a state of ineffable languefaction,” adding, “The want of ‘tone’ in the air is altogether indescribable: it makes it mortally flat and dead and relaxing. The great point is that it is all excessively pleasant and you succumb to languor with a perfectly demoralized conscience. But it is languor (for me at least) languor perpetual and irresistible . . .”—another kind of “ostrich-like forgetfulness”—he, Henry, proposes (19 May 1973) “a few more notes of travel: for two reasons”:
1º that a few more joined with those already published and written will make a decent little volume; and 2º that now or never (I think) is my time. The keen love and observation of the picturesque is ebbing away from me as I grow older, and I doubt whether a year or two hence I shall have it in me to describe houses and mountains, or even cathedrals and pictures. I don’t know whether I shall do anything better, but I shall have been spoiled for this. The real, natural time,—if I could—would have been when I was abroad before. Mysterious and incontrollable (even to one’s self) is the growth of one’s mind. Little by little, I trust, my abilities will catch up with my ambitions.
So we continue, “weighing a preponderancy,” in love and out with the minor impertinent heft of it all . . .

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Notebook (Denise Riley, Louis Zukofsky, Sir Thomas Overbury, &c.)

Sir Thomas Overbury, 1581-1613
(Portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, attrib.)

The “catarrh-y beep” of nighthawks in the post-recital humidity, yesterday’s tornado weather canceled, today’s phoebe buzzing its name in the oaks. A spiffy redoubtable optimism for no reason at all. Ambling through the dew-filigreed matutinal zone with the dog, sixty degrees F. A little walking cataclysm of nerves and melodies in the usual cheap trousers. Denise Riley (out of “A Shortened Set”): “I’d drive anywhere with anyone, just / to have that held sense of looking out / from a container, amiably, stolidly while / I’m portered by.” A perfect adverbial pile-up. And, answering a question or two regarding “the crammed-fullness of the place / too dense for story threads to pierce”: “I’d thought / to ask around, what’s lyric poetry? / Its bee noise starts before I can . . .” As Shakespeare’s “Poet” helplessly puts it in Timon of Athens:
A thing slipp’d idly from me.
Our poesy is as a gum, which oozes
From whence ’tis nourish’d: the fire i’ the flint
Shows not till it be struck; our gentle flame
Provokes itself and like the current flies
Each bound it chafes.
Helpless with a kind of bemused defiance.

Louis Zukofsky, out of Bottom: On Shakespeare (1963), quoting Sir Thomas Overbury’s Characters (1614):
What a Character Is

If I must speak the schoolmaster’s language, I will confess that character comes from this infinitive mood, χαράξω, that signifyeth to engrave, or make a deep impression. And for that cause, a letter (as A.B.) is called a character.

Those elements which we learn first, leaving a strong seal in our memories.

Character is also taken from an Egyptian hieroglyphic, for an impress, or short emblem; in little comprehending much.

To square out a character by our English level, it is a picture (real or personal) quaintly drawn, in various colours, all of them heightened by one shadowing.

It is a quick and soft touch of many strings, all shutting up in one musical close; it is wit’s descant on any plain song.
“Wit’s descant on any plain song”: the “character” thus kin to lyric poetry.

Or Denise Riley again, out of “Wherever You Are, Be Somewhere Else” (Selected Poems):
A body shot through, perforated, a tin sheet
beaten out then peppered with thin holes,
silvery, leaf-curled at their edges; light flies

right through this tracery, voices leap, slip side-
long, all faces split to angled facets: whichever
piece is glimpsed, that bit is what I am, held

in a look until dropped like an egg on the floor
let slop, crashed to slide and run, yolk yellow
for the live, the dead who worked through me . . .

[. . .]

I can try on these gothic riffs, they do make
a black twitchy cloak to both ham up and so
perversely dignify my usual fear of ends.

To stare at nothing, just to get it right
get nothing right, with some faint idea of
this as a proper way to spend a life. No, what

I really mean to say instead is, come back
won’t you, just all of you come back, and give
me one more go at doing it all again but doing it

far better this time round—the work, the love stuff—
so I go to the wordprocessor longing for line cables
to loop out of the machine straight to my head

and back, as I do want to be only transmission—
in sleep alone I get articulate, to mouth the part of
anyone and reel off others’ characters until the focus

of a day through one-eyed self sets in again: go into it.
I must. The flower breaks open to its bell of sound
that rings out through the woods . . .
The uncontainable self: what “flies / Each bound it chafes . . .”

To note: three new pieces—“To Sincerity,” “To Literary History” and “To ‘The Day’s Uncommon Lustre’”—now up at Wave Composition. There too: a terrific interview with Cyrus Console: “I feel that the prose poem emerged as a small, rectangular form that a person of average means could own, just as etchings and lithographs began to populate the homes of the middle class. Maybe a resurgence of prose poems correlates to abundant traffic in cheap, reproducible image formats?”

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Notebook (Denise Riley, William Gaddis, Charles Olson, &c.)

Charles Olson, c. 1955
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Morning’s field planked with “losenges and scochouns” of fog, heraldic shreds of the night. Night of rain’s fierce throttlings and tender abeyances, a low pressure trough making its way east. “Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.” Literature, its way of subjoining the blunt realia of the moment. To record the opening lines out of Denise Riley’s piece “Lyric” (out of Selected Poems):
Stammering it fights to get
held and to never get held
as whatever motors it swells
to hammer itself out on me

then it can call out high
and rounded as a night-
bird’s cry falling clean
down out of a black tree.

I take on its rage at the cost
of sleep. If I love it I sink
attracting its hatred. If I
don’t love it I steal its music.
Mooting ad aeternum any late specious discourse apropos lyric obsolescence, its supposed exhaustedness, it newly-decreed unutterability . . .

Is it merely the result of readerly propinquity—my opening up William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) “in the vicinity” of Riley’s “Lyric”?—why need I juxtapose Gaddis’s ambiguous and brutal opening lines here?
      The bird, a pigeon was it? or a dove (she’d found there were doves here) flew through the air, its colour lost in what light remained. It might have been the wad of rag she’d taken it for at first glance, flung at the smallest of boys out there wiping mud from his cheek where it hit him, catching it up by a wing to fling it back where one of them now with a broken branch for a bat hit it high over a bough caught and flung back and hit again into a swirl of leaves, into a puddle from rain the night before, a kind of battered shuttlecock moulting in a flurry at each blow, hit into the yellow dead end sign on the corner opposite the house where they’d end up that time of day . . .
Violence and uncertainty, and the tenuousness of its music allowing a kind of vitality, unkempt, vacillatory, brimming with unreconciled energies, “lyric.”

A note. Seeing, in Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking” (1862), the lines:
He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them—transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots; whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half smothered between two musty leaves in a library—
And somewhat idly wondering if Charles Olson—who talks little of Thoreau—recalled Thoreau’s “words . . . with earth adhering to their roots” in summoning up “These Days”:
whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them

And the dirt

                just to make clear
                where they came from
In a 21 January 1954 letter to Irving Layton, Olson writes of sending the lines to William Carlos Williams:
Oh, YEAH; as of the shit in Bill’s pants, or EP’s—how you had it—messiness; I once sent this one, to Bill:
these days

                whatever you have to say,
leave the roots on. Let them dangle.
And the dirt.

                Just to make sure
                where they come from
I think it was. It’s the idea,

Friday, May 24, 2013

Notebook (Denise Riley, Louis Zukofsky, &c.)

Denise Riley

Scrubbed-down skies and cold, what slid in behind yesterday’s rain. Stuck, walking the dog, with Wallace Stevens’s line “the pleasures of merely circulating”—“that things go round and again go round / Has rather a classical sound.” And with the poignant way Denise Riley so pertinently (and casually) allows rock ’n’ roll detritus into a poem, material deposits of lyric vocables simply put down. The poem a lightning rod, grounding stray bits of lingo, the straggling common signifiers of one’s “era.” Thinking particularly of “Rayon”—out of Riley’s the Selected Poems (2000):
The day is nervous buff—the shakiness, is it inside the day or me?
Perhaps the passions that we feel don’t quite belong to anyone
but hang outside us in the light like hoverflies, aping wasps and swiveling
and lashing up one storm of stripes. In tiny cones of air.
Yet you enact that feeling, as you usually bzzzzzzzzz get to do it, while I,
I do this. If it takes me all night and day. Oh Carol.
Riley’s note: “‘Rayon’ ends with the line sung by Neil Sedaka.” (For me, what wells up out of that final line of deadpan lyric-speak—half-scorn, half-glad—is the Rolling Stones, off some nameless bootleg . . .)

Louis Zukofsky, out of Bottom: On Shakespeare (1963), quoting James Russell Lowell out of a piece called “White’s Shakspeare” in the Atlantic Monthly in 1859:
          ‘So soon as a language has become literary . . . so far as poetry is concerned . . . (as in writing Latin verses) . . . a mind in itself essentially original becomes in the use of such a medium of utterance unconsciously reminiscential and reflective, lunar and not solar . . .
          ‘Shakespeare . . . found a language . . . not yet fetlocked by dictionary and grammar mongers, a versification . . . which had not yet exhausted all its modulations, nor been set in the stocks by critics who deal judgment on refractory feet that will dance to Orphean measures of which their judges are insensible . . . poetry had not been aliened . . . by the establishment of an Upper House of vocables . . . the living tongue resembled that tree which Father Huc saw in Tartary, whose leaves were languaged—and every hidden root of thought, every subtilest fibre of feeling, was mated by new shoots and leafage of expression . . .’
And Zukofsky points to both William Carlos Williams’s “The Botticellian Trees” (“The alphabet of / the trees // is fading in the / song of the leaves”), the vigors of speech (“song”) being thwart and witness to the seeping-in of bookish inconsequentialities, Latinate sediments. Zukofsky’s argument (put succinctly here: “in Shakespeare, seeing is pleasure: for wisdom sees”) tends to make tongue secondary to eye, whose pleasure (Zukofsky quotes Aristotle out of Nicomachean Ethics: ‘For an activity is intensified by its proper pleasure, since each class of things is better judged of and brought to precision by those who engage in the activity with pleasure . . .’) and sight he determines to suffice. Zukofsky:
          Free-born reason freed from Aristotelian demonstration shut its eyes on the Philosopher’s ‘sure’ sense of sight . . . and like the seventeenth century ode became increasingly tongue: grew men who are part poets by virtue of their ‘chop-logic’ . . .
(Wordsworth, he of “the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure” is quoted in Zukofsky’s Bottom precisely once: “‘And often eyes’.”) Comparing Zukofsky’s Lowell excerpts with their originals,* one notes how much of Lowell’s essentially Wordsworthian emphasis—lamenting any “gap between the speech of books and that of life”—is stripped out. Here, Zukofsky’s famous integral “Lower limit speech / Upper limit music” is substituted by the Zukofskyan proportion “love is to reason as the eyes are to the mind”—a formula that leaves the tongue lolling, wordless. Zukofsky senses the inertia of the proportion (“logic always asserts identity or says something like the theological carol: ‘One is one and all alone.’ To avoid circuity is to say instead: No tongue! all eyes! be silent. But no artist in words dares act the six words of this command, unless he desires not to exist.”) Quoting Prospero in The Tempest. So: “things go round and again go round . . .” Oh Carol.
* The pertinent originals:
So soon as a language has become literary, so soon as there is a gap between the speech of books and that of life, the language becomes, so far as poetry is concerned, almost as dead as Latin, and (as in writing Latin verses) a mind in itself essentially original becomes in the use of such a medium of utterance unconsciously reminiscential and reflective, lunar and not solar, in expression and even in thought. For words and thoughts have a much more intimate and genetic relation, one with the other, than most men have any notion of; and it is one thing to use our mother-tongue as if it belonged to us, and another to be the puppets of an overmastering vocabulary.
Shakespeare, then, found a language already to a certain extent established, but not yet fetlocked by dictionary- and grammar-mongers,—a versification harmonized, but which had not yet exhausted all its modulations, nor been set in the stocks by critics who deal judgment on refractory feet, that will dance to Orphean measures of which their judges are insensible. That the language was established is proved by its comparative uniformity as used by the dramatists, who wrote for mixed audiences, as well as by Ben Jonson’s satire upon Marston’s neologisms; that it at the same time admitted foreign words to the rights of citizenship on easier terms than now is in good measure equally true. What was of greater import, no arbitrary line had been drawn between high words and low; vulgar then meant simply what was common; poetry had not been aliened from the people by the establishment of an Upper House of vocables, alone entitled to move in the stately ceremonials of verse, and privileged from arrest while they forever keep the promise of meaning to the ear and break it to the sense. The hot conception of the poet had no time to cool while he was debating the comparative respectability of this phrase or that; but he snatched what word his instinct prompted, and saw no indiscretion in making a king speak as his country nurse might have taught him. It was Waller who first learned in France that to talk in rhyme alone comported with the state of royalty. In the time of Shakespeare, the living tongue resembled that tree which Father Huc saw in Tartary, whose leaves were languaged,—and every hidden root of thought, every subtilest fibre of feeling, was mated by new shoots and leafage of expression, fed from those unseen sources in the common earth of human nature.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Notebook (Jean Cocteau, William Carlos Williams, &c.)

Jean Cocteau, c. 1949
(Photograph by Philippe Halsman)

Jean Cocteau, out of Le Potomak (1913-14, printed 1919):
      I was writing in a disorderly manner. At the centre we noticed that my voice was breaking, as it were, that I was writing in one of those crises in which the organism changes. In this way one dies several times before death and when one finally reaches death one resembles the sacred dancers of Spain.
      These dancers dance in the church and the ancestral costumes are handed down through them. From century to century pieces of the costumes are replaced and now the costumes are still the same and not the same.
      Tomorrow I could be no longer capable of writing this book. It will stop when the changing stops: the last day of convalescence. Then, I could write it, but it would no longer be a book, for what composes, directs and blocks it is the state in which I momentarily find myself. Later, I speak to you about an acrobat: ‘Every step cheats the fall.’ He does not know where the cord ends and even with his foot on firm ground he walks carefully.
      If you encounter a sentence which irritates you, I put it there not like a reef to make you keel over, but
      in order that
as though it were a buoy,
you discover how far I have gone.
      Too many diverse milieux cause harm to the sensitive man who adapts himself. There was (once upon a time) a chameleon. In order to keep him warm his owner placed him on a multicoloured Scottish plaid.
      The chameleon died of exhaustion.
      I didn’t know why I created the Eugènes, the Potomak, the butterfly, or what relationship could in fact be established between them. Secret architecture. ‘What are you preparing?’ Canche asked me. I blushed. Impossible to answer him.
      ‘Your pockets,’ said Canche, ‘are full of matches and you never use them.’ That, I replied to Canche, is the elegance of riches. Abuse seems to me vulgar and use is already a lack of tact. I give you a thousand matches. You are free to light your pipe.
      What the public reproaches you for, cultivate: it is you.
      My modesty: to be completely naked, tidy up my bedroom and put the light out. And everyone brings his lamp.
      Beware of those who preserve old anarchies.
      I’m going to confess to you one of my first symptoms.
      In the past press cuttings would have made me weep and now I find strength in them. The more people laugh at me and the more this ‘me’ vanishes, I want people to laugh at it. One evening Axonge* congratulated me. ‘I was sure of you,’ he said, ‘but I expected this crisis to occur later.’
      I didn’t succeed in understanding him.
      I shall save nothing from my burning past. Won’t I become a pillar of sugar if I turn round?
      Travel, Persicaire told me. If you change without moving, objects and people move round about you. When you travel do you know if your vision is new or do you simply see new things?
      And then you return home like a stranger.
      Now as I remain motionless I like this vertigo and my ingratitude . . .
Translated by Margaret Crosland (Cocteau’s World: An Anthology of Writings by Jean Cocteau). Recalling William Carlos Williams’s prose extravagarias Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920) and Spring and All (1923). The one beginning (brashly, unannounced, and with, oddly enough, its own medicinal ref)—
      Fools have big wombs. For the rest?—here is penny-royal if one knows to use it. But time is only another liar, so go along the wall a little further: if blackberries prove bitter there’ll be mushrooms, fairy-ring mushrooms, in the grass, sweetest of all fungi.
—and rather quickly turning, not unlike Cocteau’s piece, to a kind of dance of doubt and defiance—
      Ay dio! I could say so much were it not for the tunes changing, changing, darting so many ways. One step and the cart’s left you sprawling. Here’s the way! and—you’re hip bogged. And there’s blame of the light too: when eyes are humming birds who’ll tie them with a lead string? But it’s the tunes they want most, —send them skipping out at the tree tops. Whistle then! who’d stop the leaves swarming; curving down the east in their braided jackets? Well enough—but there’s small comfort in naked branches when the heart’s not set that way.

      A man’s desire is to win his way to some hilltop. But against him seem to swarm a hundred jumping devils. These are his constant companions, these are the friendly images which he has invented out of his mind and which are inviting him to rest and to disport himself according to hidden reasons. The man being half a poet is cast down and longs to rid himself of his torment and his tormentors.
The other (Spring and All) famously beginning—
      If anything of moment results—so much the better. And so much the more likely will it be that no one will want to see it.
      There is a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world. If there is an ocean it is here. Or rather, the whole world is between: Yesterday, tomorrow, Europe, Asia, Africa,—all things removed and impossible, the tower of the church at Seville, the Parthenon.
      What do they mean when they say: “I do not like your poems; you have no faith whatever. You seem neither to have suffered nor, in fact, to have felt anything very deeply. There is nothing appealing in what you say but on the contrary the poems are positively repellent. They are heartless, cruel, they make fun of humanity . . .
Some muddling around turns up no evidence of Williams knowing of Le Potomak. He did, in 1924, meet Cocteau in Paris, chez Nancy Cunard, and in the Autobiography writes: “In the evening to La Cigale for Jean Cocteau’s Juliet and Romeo of which I remember nothing at all save that it in no way resembled Shakespeare’s story.” Too, there’s a rather odd (diverging out of its initial “obliquity” into something like “resigned joy”) c. 1949 piece in the Williams oeuvre called “Spring Is Here Again, Sir.” (Its line about Cocteau reads, roughly: “My dear Cocteau / who lunches at times / with Picasso”):
Goffle brook of a May day
(Mon cher Cocteau
qui déjeune des fois
avec Picasso
) blossoms
in the manner of antiquity

Which is an obliquity
for the movement
and the sheen of ripples
bridging the gap for
age-old winnowing decay—

from then to now. Which
leaves very little
but the sun and air
unless one should prefer
a pool of human spittle

over which to grieve.
Rhyme it regularly if you
will. I say the night
is not always gay for
an old man who has sinned.

But the brook! is mine
and I must still prefer it
to the summits of Tibet
from which to take off:
—of spring, to the air

for relief! smell of clover,
cherries are ripening.
We lay, Floss and I, on
the grass together, in
the warm air: a bird flew

into a bush, dipped our
hands in the running water—
cold, too cold; but found
it, to our satisfaction,
as in the past, still wet.
A poem that is a series of recommencements, with only the brook (Goffle Brook is a tributary of the Passaic River) running continuously through it. One recalls Cocteau’s declared sense of constantly shedding skins (“my voice was breaking . . . I was writing in one of those crises in which the organism changes”), of Le Potomak’s being a book showing him “undergoing a change like a bird moulting” (reported by Crosland). Which, that need for continual renewal, is precisely Williams’s concern (see, in the “Prologue” to Kora in Hell: “the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose. It is this difficulty that sets a value upon all works of art and makes them a necessity. The senses witnessing what is immediately before them in detail see a finality which they cling to in despair, not knowing which way to turn. Thus the so-called natural or scientific array becomes fixed, the walking devil of modern life.”) The “array . . . fixed”—Williams’s desire to avoid what he subsequently calls “the trammels of literature.” Thus the quarrel with Wallace Stevens, out of whose letter Williams quotes in the “Prologue”:
My idea is that in order to carry a thing to the extreme necessity to convey it one has to stick to it; . . . Given a fixed point of view, realistic, imagistic or what you will, everything adjusts itself to that point of view; and the process of adjustment is a world in flux, as it should be for a poet. But to fidget with points of view leads always to new beginnings and incessant new beginnings lead to sterility.
* One eighteenth century pharmacopoeia defines axonge thus: “graisse d’homme préparée, avec des herbes, & qui est bonne pour les humeurs froides. Man’s Grease.” Cocteau, in a note about names found in Le Potomak: “I was in a chemist’s shop in Normandy with a friend I had in common with Gide. Look at the containers, I said to him, you might think they were names from Gide’s books. This was how I christened the characters in Le Potomak. This and several other examples of friendly teasing should not be taken the wrong way.” Bien sûr.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Notebook (Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Jack Spicer, &c.)

Erik Satie, 1866–1925

Sleepiness under a low and sullen sky, rain in the offing. A Carolina wren up in the oaks hammering out its loud teakettle teakettle teakettle. Sense of disorder, the brainpan’s scotched hurly-burly, its usual defining intaglio cutting into mere morass (out of the Old French marais, mares, maresc, &c. Meaning “marsh.”) Or there’s a dodgy local tourbillon trapped in the cranial vault, few the graspable morsels turning over and over in the grayish turmoil of its soup . . .

Francis Steegmuller, regarding Jean Cocteau, circa 1913 (out of the 1970 Cocteau: A Biography): “Convinced that hitherto he had been living and writing ‘externally,’ he now began to ‘practice dreaming.’ ‘I had read that sugar induced dreams; I ate whole boxes of it. I lay down fully dressed twice a day. I stopped my ears with wax in order that my dreams might be rooted more deeply than in external sounds.’”

Steegmuller repeats, too, “a remark of Picasso’s that Cocteau jotted down”: “Picasso says: ‘Don’t be afraid to glue a piece of newspaper to the canvas—i.e., to use a movement whose meaning cannot be misunderstood, and which, remaining untransposed, gives full value to the other movements.’” That “movement . . . untransposed” recalling Jack Spicer’s desire “to point to the real” in After Lorca (1957):
      I would like to make poems out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste—a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper. I would like the moon in my poems to be a real moon, one which could be suddenly covered with a cloud that has nothing to do with the poem—a moon utterly independent of images. The imagination pictures the real. I would like to point to the real, disclose it, to make a poem that has no sound in it but the pointing of a finger.

Cocteau’s sense of determined simplicity. In the notebook, too: “Work with three colors—too many colors make Impressionism (Picasso).” And (out of Cocteau’s 1918 Cock and Harlequin, talking of composer Erik Satie’s—Cocteau’s own—“return to simplicity”):
      Sick to death of flabbiness, fluidity, superfluity, frills, and all the modern sleight-of-hand, though often tempted by a technique of which he knows the ultimate resources, Satie voluntarily abstained, in order to ‘model in the block’ and remain simple, clear, and luminous. But the public hates candour.
      Each of Satie’s works is an example of renunciation.
      The opposition put forward by Erik Satie consists in a return to simplicity. Moreover, that is the only possible kind of opposition in an age of extreme refinement . . .
(Spicer: “These letters are to be as temporary as our poetry is to be permanent. They will establish the bulk, the wastage that my sour-stomached contemporaries demand to help them swallow and digest the pure word. We will use up our rhetoric here so that it will not appear in our poems. Let it be consumed paragraph by paragraph, day by day, until nothing of it is left in our poetry and nothing of our poetry is left in it. It is precisely because these letters are unnecessary that they must be written.”)

Is it plausible to connect Spicer’s sense—out of the initial “Vancouver Lecture” (1965) of language being “furniture” (“Language is part of the furniture in the room. Language isn’t anything of itself.”) to Erik Satie’s “musique d’ameublement” or “furniture music”? (I rather doubt it.) Though, oddly enough: out of program notes to an 8 March 1920 “concert” presented between acts of a Max Jacob piece: “Nous vous prions instamment de ne pas y attacher d’importance et d’agir pendant l’entr’acte comme si elle n’existait pas. Cette musique, spécialement écrite pour la pièce de Max Jacob (ruffian, toujours; truand, jamais) prétend à contribuer à la vie, au même titre qu’une conversation particulière, qu’un tableau de la galerie, ou que le siège sur lequel on est, ou non, assis.” Roughly: “We urge you not to attach any importance to [the music] during the intermission and to act as if it did not exist. This music, written expressly for the play by Max Jacob (ruffian, always; crook, never) claims to contribute to life, in the way a private conversation does, or a painting in a gallery, or the seat on which one is, or is not, sitting.”* And there’s Cocteau’s note (Cock and Harlequin):
      Enough of clouds, waves, aquariums, water-sprites, and nocturnal scents; what we need is a music of the earth, everyday music.
      Enough of hammocks, garlands, and gondolas; I want someone to build me a music I can live in, like a house.
* What, too, to make of Spicer’s piece in A Book of Music (1958):

The sound of words as they fall away from our mouths
Is less important
And yet that chair
                              this table
Assume identities
                                                take their places
Almost as a kind of music.
Words make things name
Makes the table grumble
In the symphony of God am a table
Makes the chair sing
A little song about the people that will never be sitting on it
And we
Who in the same music
Are almost as easily shifted as furniture
Can learn our names from our mouths
Name our names
In the middle of the same music.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Notebook (Robert Creeley, John Wieners, &c.)

Robert Creeley at Black Mountain, c. 1955
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Chores and demands. Constrained here to musterings of the quasi-introuvable, of the seemingly overlooked, of the unnoted. Out of the Vincent Katz’s terrific Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art (2002)—recently, I see, out in paperback—two previously unpublished pieces. A poem by Robert Creeley:
An Ode

                  (for Black Mt. College)

There is this side of it.
                                  And two weeks ago I was
of it—a book, and a long poem:
                                        Simon Bolivar.

And why not. One is much too
repentant. The secrets are
to be shared.

Why go to college. Or, a man said, it
is too far away.

Why go.

If I don’t get there,—I did

If I don’t get there, this year
anyhow I know some of the names, I know
what it might have been like, say, or

you say. (The Creeleys
are all comediente.)

The sky here, dark enough, tonight
the moon is
is not to any other
                  is mute in

Tonight, fire. The race
of fire. And what the hell else to say but
Rhythmically aligned—and, too, in terms of “theme” (particularly after “The sky here, dark enough . . .”)—to Creeley’s “I Know a Man” (“which was not his / name, the darkness sur- / rounds us”)? The final “run” here echoing “I Know a Man”’s emphatic “drive”? Usual jittery Creeleyesqueries, and feints of faintly humorous (“comediente”) and knowing obscurity. The sheer stuttering loveliness and sufficiency of “tonight / the moon is / is not to any other / insistence, / is mute in / itself.” (Of Olson—and “college”—Creeley writes, in an essay called “Olson and Black Mountain College” included in Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art: “I remember his saying once, ‘I need a college to think with.’ It seemed very true. He depended on multiple reference, relevant density, context particular, and occasion for the ‘testing some proof’ he speaks of in Maximus. Given that Black Mountain was a place ‘where people were more interested in what they didn’t know than in what they did,’ as the sculptor John Chamberlain later said, Olson’s was the perfect intelligence and intellectual habit for its use and coherence. He was immensely bored with the static, the talking about talking, which he dubbed ‘the universe of discourse,’ as opposed to that initial place, the literal and transforming world into which one was born, and then lived and died. He wanted to regain a way through to the primary, to have the human be again a freshness, not merely an echo of whatever it might once have been . . .”)

A poem by John Wieners:
The Black Mountain Blues

I want to go back to old black mountain this morning,
I want to sing old songs with Dorn and Charlie O,
I want to take my bleeding heart,
I wanta break my bleeding heart
all over this city’s asphalt floor,
I want to swish a mountain shadow,
hear tree frogs say good morning, mister,
and the red clay roads will deep my feet in mud,
I want to sleep in the same pants every night
I want to eat spaghetti every night
with the ladies who play gay guitars
and the boys who lie down
in rain to see the stars,
I want the copperheads, the roses and the streams,
I want the mountains, and Lake Eden in my dreams
I want to go back to Black Mountain in the morning
and play ping pong in the cellar,
hear Billie Holliday through the woods
drink half a dollar wine till I’m drunk for good,
I want to leave the neon and the cement towers,
I want to spend my life in loneliness,
without a cheap lover to wash my face,
a lover who will fill my place when I turn my back,
I want to go back so fast
I want to be lonely,
I want only the shadow of those black mountains,
and kiss the rain, that’s my roman fountains,
I want to catch lunar moths,
and pee on the chairs.
I want to walk down mornings,
and pick up the mail,
I want to see the men in grey come from the
county jails to clean our fields,
to wash our faces,
I want to go back to those empty rooms,
and taste the dirty delight of lonely nights,
I want to cry in bed again,
and sleep under windows that have no glass,
drink my beer with ten outcasts that make up
the people, make up for lovers
I leave behind me when I take for cover
under the warm and black hills of black mountain.
I want to roll my cigarettes again, and play piano,
with one finger, I want to walk down pathways and linger
by roses and japanese vines,
I want to hear Miles Davis sing again,
and old Bessie do swing again,
I want to hear the husbands and wives throw ink again
on each other’s sink again,
those old tree frogs are calling me, the mountains,
are growing tall for me,
oh take me back, carry me back,
on the morning train, the tuesday train,
I shall go by the lumber yards,
and wait in the stations, the colored pardners,
I left behind, at Peek’s, at all the
old familiar roads I bicycled,
I will ride again by the rapids,
and see the dogs catch lizard s in the dawn,
oh those old grey mountains are calling,
those pink mountains are calling,
so it takes my lover away from me,
it brings me to a lonely country,
I go there, I run there, to see Charlie O,
and Connie O, with the dogs and babies who swear and wear no clothes,
I will give up my heart I will go in the dark to go back
to them someday, and take the beautiful bends, the road
that shows me my end, alone, alone, is the road I see,
but still I’ll go there and I’ll kiss the hornets and bees,
I’ll hear foxes under my window,
I’ll be afraid to go out in the dark, and I’ll
whisper into my pillow, your light’s gone out,
your light is up in the city, in bed with somebody else,
but it doesn’t matter, in the mountains,
it doesn’t matter in the hills, cuz there I’ll be,
and there I’ll wander from room to room,
from fellow to fonder, I’ll take my
chances in the hills again,
I’ll go and take my chances in the hills, again,
so mister man, buy a one-way ticket, I’m going back
dad I’m leaving this circuit, I’m cutting my space, I’m leaving
this time, I’m going on mountain, eastern mountain saving time,
so take your ticket for me, I’ll kiss you goodbye,
I’ll have nobody now, to kiss me and cry
I’ll have no lips to keep mine dry,
I’ll be alone, there,
I’ll be alone with nobody to care
for me,
but still I’m taking that trip,
and it’s the end of the road,
but the end shall be high up
and I’ll die with gold
clothes on,
in the black mountain of northern carolina,
I’ll die and my face will have a silver-lining.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Notebook (Jean Cocteau, Ted Berrigan, Guillaume Apollinaire, &c.)

Ted Berrigan, 1934–1983

Out of Francis Steegmuller’s Cocteau (1970), Cocteau’s hommage to Apollinaire (“Printed in Vient de Parâitre, No. 24, November 15, 1923. Not reprinted in the “Complete Works.”), a piece Cocteau read at a June 8, 1919 “matinée poétique” in memory of Apollinaire (d. 9 November 1918):
La Mort de Guillaume Apollinaire

Coupe à ta muse les cheveux
Picasso, peintre aux doigts de fée;
Les objets te suivent, Orphée,
Jusqu’à la forme que tu veux.

Mais il est mort, celui qui change
Les mots de forme de couleurs;
Picasso, ta muse est en pleurs.

Guillaume Apollinaire
Amateur de tulipes,
Vous fumez votre pipe
Le petit doigt en l’air.

Vous racontez aux anges
Par exemple que les nègres sont d’anciens Bretons
Ou que Cléopâtre a inventé les oranges.
Ils vous écoutent bouche bée.

Vous parlez, vous riez dans votre main d’abbé,
Vous n’avez plus mal à la tête.
Vous êtes mort un samedi;
Rousseau vous attendait devant le paradis
Avec des œillets du poète.

Le Dimanche déjà vous fondiez l’éternisme
(Nouvelle école)
Dans un article de journal;
Étoiles, faux-cols, prismes.
Aussi les gens du ciel aiment beaucoup
Déjeuner et se promener avec vous.
A piece Ted Berrigan (who probably found it in Steegmuller’s biography) translated thus—initially printed in Iowa City, seemingly, in one of the mimeograph-era numbers of Toothpaste, and, too, in the Ron Padgett-edited “(Translations) issue” of The World, (No. 27, 1973):
The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire

Cut the hair of your Muse
Picasso, you nimble-fingered painter
Objects which come after you, Mr. Orpheus
Already have taken shapes you see

But he is dead, the man who changes words
Shapes & colors
Picasso, your Muse is in tears

Guillaume Apollinaire
Connoisseur of tulips
You smoke your tiny pipe
Little finger in the air

You tell the angels stories
For example that blacks are ancient Bretons
That Cleopatra invented oranges
They listen open-mouthed to you

You talk, you laugh behind your hand
                like the Pope
Your headache is gone
You are dead on Saturday
Rousseau waits on you with sweet Williams
                before the gates of Paradise

By Sunday you have founded a new school,
Launched with an article in the newspaper in the sky
Stars, Horsecollars, Prisms
And the people in the sky really love
To have dinner & to take a walk with you.
Rousseau—the painter Henri (“Le Douanier”)—had died September 2, 1910 and the opening lines of Apollinaire’s “Inscription pour le tombeau du peintre Henri Rousseau, douanier” were cut—by Constantin Brâncuși—into Rousseau’s stone:
Gentil Rousseau tu nous entends
Nous te saluons
Delaunay sa femme Monsieur Queval et moi
Laisse passer nos bagages en franchise à la porte du ciel
Nous t’apporterons des pinceaux des couleurs des toiles
Afin que tes loisirs sacrés dans la lumière réelle
Tu les consacres à peindre comme tu tiras mon portrait
La face des étoiles*
Lines Cocteau surely knew. Berrigan’s “sweet Williams”—deftly echoing Apollinaire’s name. (“Horsecollars”—somewhat stretched, a little outré in its reach, for the “fake collars” of “faux-cols.”) “The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire” isn’t included in Berrigan’s 2005 Collected Poems. Though in the “Notes” accompanying the poems, one finds two mentions of it. How both poems “Frank O’Hara” and “The End” contain lines out of “The Death of Guillaume Apollinaire.” “Frank O’Hara” borrows the two final lines. It reads:
Winter in the country, Southampton, pale horse
as the soot rises, then settles, over the pictures
The birds that were singing this morning have shut up
I thought I saw a couple kissing, but Larry said no
It’s a strange bird. He should know. & I think now
“Grandmother divided by monkey equals outer space.” Ron
put me in that picture. In another picture, a good-
looking poet is thinking it over, nevertheless, he will
never speak of that it. But, his face is open, his eyes
are clear, and, leaning lightly on an elbow, fist below
his ear, he will never be less than perfectly frank,
listening, completely interested in whatever there may
be to hear. Attentive to me alone here. Between friends,
nothing would seem stranger to me than true intimacy.
What seems genuine, truly real, is thinking of you, how
that makes me feel. You are dead. And you’ll never
write again about the country, that’s true.
But the people in the sky really love
to have dinner & to take a walk with you.
“The End” reads:
Despair farms a curse, slackness
In the sleep of animals, with mangled limbs
Dogs, frogs, game elephants, while
There’s your new life, blasted with milk.
It’s the last day of summer, it’s the first
Day of fall: soot sits on Chicago like
A fat head’s hat. The quick abound. Turn
To the left; turn to the right. On Bear’s Head
Two Malted Milk balls. “Through not taking himself
Quietly enough he strained his insides.” He
Encourages criticism, but he never forgives it.
You who are the class in the sky, receive him
Into where you dwell. May he rest long and well.
God help him, he invented us, that is, a future
Open living beneath his spell. One goes not where
One came from. One sitting says, “I stand corrected.”
(No Cocteau. Seemingly an editing gaffe. In Berrigan’s 2011 Selected Poems, there’s no reference to “The End”’s containing lines out of the Cocteau translation. The note reads simply: “Written in Chicago in 1972. First published in A Feeling for Leaving.” The note for “Frank O’Hara” refers to Berrigan’s translation of Cocteau’s “La Mort de Guillaume Apollinaire” as being “made in March 1970 in New York.”)
* In Oliver Bernard’s rendering:
Kind Rousseau you who hear us now
We greet you
Delaunay his wife Monsieur Queval and I
Let our luggage pass freely through the customs-house of heaven
And we’ll bring you brushes and colours and canvases
So that you may devote your holy leisure in the true light
To painting as you once did my portrait
The faces of the stars

Thursday, May 16, 2013


John Baldessari, “Wrong,” 1966-1968

Mr. Van Ess bought 14 washcloths?
Fourteen washrags, Ed Van Ess?
Must be going to give em
to the church, I guess.

He drinks, you know. The day we moved
he came into the kitchen stewed,
mixed things up for my sister Grace—
put the spices in the wrong place.

        —Lorine Niedecker, out of New Goose (1946)

Sextus need
not offend Pythagoras

calling his
‘wrong moment
foolish for
sobering frenzied
youths with
a righteous
spondean' (instead
of quitting
their dive)

        —Louis Zukofsky, out of “A-19” (”A” 13-21, 1969)

the white wrong numeral on the wall
can't take it off with the clock
                      down with the clock it . . .
on the board-couch with brass, kindergarten clench joints
backed violet rip into the gas valve
it hemmed & snowed

          the wrong way
                remnant face
          the pucker

        —Clark Coolidge, out of “Fed Drapes” (Space, 1970)

. . . but what of the details of common perception language endeavours when written to devour? ‘Wrong words, how can we tell but we can.’ Little slips of the pen become spells calling demons (nomadic) from the spillage constantly threatening religious and secular authority. Excessive mistake or mystique? The pen stalks letters or pens talk or they did until as children were warned in the 1950s Biro’s invention killed the art of fair writing an example perhaps of the fall as broken enchantment re-enacted. ‘Theoretically starlings could compose in counterpoint’ shows how theory might reveal the way things used to be. An alien voiceprint, let’s suppose, which records that speech was the only substance the visitors identified on earth and no more connected with the practice the locals call ‘writing’ than painting a picture or blowing through a tube. Not as such to be considered as a sign as of commandment. Here as elsewhere the letter Y makes supplication . . .

        —Alan Halsey, out of Dante’s Barber Shop (De Vulgari Eloquentia) (2001)

There is sometimes a miniscule playing card on the floor, it is
                facedown & blue with stars
And you will never turn it over. To complain of money will ruin
                your conversation; if you do not
Complain of money there is probably something wrong with your life.
                Perhaps you should
Call money “green zinnias.” “For a few hundred more green zinnias
                I can fly to Rome at
The end of June.”

        —Alice Notley, out of “The Prophet” (How Spring Comes, 1981)

                                    Summa diligentia;
to the humbug, whose name is so amusing—very young and ve-

ry rushed, Caesar crossed the Alps on the “top of a
      diligence.” We are not daft about the meaning but this familiarity
with wrong meaning puzzles one. Humming-
      bug, the candles are not wired for electricity.
Small dog, going over the lawn, nipping the linen and saying

that you have a badger—remember Xenophon;
      only the most rudimentary sort of behaviour is necessary to put us on the scent . . .

        —Marianne Moore, out of “Picking and Choosing” (Observations, 1924)

. . . the water breaks up into seas, lakes, rivers, runlets,
a few noticeable configurations, short of perplexing multeity:

the mind rides the cycle from all things enchanted and
summoned into unity, a massive, shining presence, to all
things diffused, an illimitable, shining absence, confusion

the wrong zone of intermediacy, a lack of clarifying extremes:
the week of windy cold comes and removes the last hangers-on
from the trees and heaps them against hedge, fence . . .

        —A. R. Ammons, out of Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974)

One goes on asking questions. That, then, is one
Of the categories. So said, this placid space

Is changed. It is not so blue as we thought. To be blue,
There must be no questions. It is an intellect
Of windings round and dodges to and fro,

Writhings in wrong obliques and distances,
Not an intellect in which we are fleet: present
Everywhere in space at once, cloud-pole

Of communication. It would be enough
If we were even, just once, at the middle, fixed . . .

        —Wallace Stevens, out of “The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract”
        (The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, 1954)

Yet even where things go wrong there is more
drumming, more clatter than seems normal. There is a remnant of energy
no one can account for, and though I try
to despise my own ways along with others, I can’t help placing
things in the proper light. I am to exult
in the stacks of cloud banks, each silently yearning
for the upper ether and curving its back, and in the way all things
seem to have of shaping up before the deaf man comes . . .

        —John Ashbery, out of “In My Way / On My Way” (Hotel Lautréamont, 1991)

. . . You sap. If we imagine the facts otherwise than as they are, certain language games lose some of their importance, while others become more important. Butterflies churn the air. The meaning of a word like the function of an official. Modal rounders. One could be wrong intentionally, but without deceit. The sharp shadows of a low sun, the light smack against the white housefronts. Each day there’s the bridge. Every word is either current, or strange, or metaphorical, or ornamental, or newly coined, or lengthened, or contracted, or altered. The salute of the fireboats. Weathercock, scrimshaw. Panama Exposition . . .

        —Ron Silliman, out of Ketjak (1978)

      . . . I still fear to mention the blue
flowers. They scared me most and I
prolong other talk. There were fields of
them around the place, all blue, all
innocent. The artificial is always innocent.
They looked hand-made, fast-dyed, paper.
They nodded ominously in the sun, right
up to the edge of the concrete ramp, a
million killing abstractions, a romantic
absence of meaning, a distorted prettiness
so thorough that my own eyes rolled up
in fear for their identity and I involuntarily
cried at the thought of tiny mirrors where
the object is lost irretrievably in its own
repetition. Is this how beauty accompanies
fear so it can escape us? Do you think these
flowers could be auctioned tintypes or souls
outside hell? Is blue what they mean by
“shun posterity” and “the price of fame” and
“fear of death”? Have I learned it wrong?

        —Frank O’Hara, out of “A Letter to Bunny”
        (The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, 1971)

. . . Boots, plows, cheese, burls. As for we who “love to be astonished,” the night is lit. Remarkably to learn to look. My father would say I’ve a “big day” tomorrow. Words are not always adequate to the occasion, and my “probably” sounded hopeless. It’s real, why, so, it’s wrong. I mentioned my face because I am made that way wonderfully like a shadow I do not despise. But if I don’t like the first dress I try on, I won’t like any . . .

        —Lyn Hejinian, out of My Life (1987)
        “When one travels, / one might ‘hit’ / a storm”

Deer polish their antlers
on fruit trees, like a girl
polishing apples on her hair.
Don’t be a fly wringing his hands
as though worry could save the world.
What’s wrong with the world?
Human hair hung from the lowest limb
will keep out the deer.
This is the animal kingdom, where
danger is clear and the tree grows
out of itself like an antler
butting the air—
huge, inexpressible growth!
Boys, girls, say sincerely
what you would like to become:
thighs shining like braided bread
in the grass,
or crickets scraping away
when words fail you?

        —Mary Ruefle, out of “The Beautiful Is Negative” (The Adamant, 1989)

Shank of the afternoon, wan weight-light,
Undercard of a short month,
                                                      February Sunday . . .
Wordlessness of the wrong world.
In the day’s dark niche, the patron saint of What-Goes-Down
Shuffles her golden deck and deals,
                                                            one for you and one for me . . .

        —Charles Wright, out of “Deep Measure” (Black Zodiac, 1997)

By itself wrong spreads nearly five pages
in the OED, and meant in its ancestral forms
curved, bent, the rib of a ship—neither
straight, nor true, but apt for its work.

The heart’s full cargo is so immense it’s not
hard to feel the weight of the word
shift, and we might as well admit it’s easy
to think of the spites and treacheries
and worse the poised word had to bear

lest some poor heart break unexplained, inept.

It’s wrong to sleep late and wake like a fog,
and to start each paragraph of a letter with I . . .

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

. . . And truly it little matters what I say, this or that or any other thing. Saying is inventing. Wrong, very rightly wrong. You invent nothing, you think you are inventing, you think you are escaping, and all you do is stammer out your lesson, the remnants of a pensum one day got by heart and long forgotten, life without tears, as it is wept. To hell with it anyway. Where was I . . .

        —Samuel Beckett, out of Molloy (1955)

I plough the earth
till ruts are ramparts

havoc of every host

Comic on a tragic stage

ambiguous chants
and gestures

“Hierarchy, hierarchy!”
in a wood again
addressing a crowd
from the wrong rostrum.

        —Susan Howe, out of “Cabbage Gardens” (Frame Structures: Early Poems, 1974-1979, 1996)

Or that the rules
were wrong, an
observation they
as well as I
knew now—

They were imagination
also. If they
would be as the
mind could see them,

then it all was
true and the
mind followed and
I also.

        —Robert Creeley, out of “They” (Pieces, 1969)

Many errors,
                        a little rightness,
to excuse his hell
                                and my paradiso.
And as to why they go wrong,
                                      thinking of rightness
And as to who will copy this palimpsest?
                  al poco giorno
                                            ed al gran cerchio d’ombra
But to affirm the gold thread in the pattern
al Vicolo d’oro
To confess wrong without losing rightness:
Charity I have had sometimes . . .

        —Ezra Pound, out of “Canto CXVI” (Drafts & Fragments of Cantos CX-CXVII, 1968)

The Wrong Door

Gi’ me a reefer, Lawd
cause I wan’ to think different
I wan’ to think
all around this subject

I wan’ to think
I wan’ to think where I is
an’ I wan’ to think my way out
of where I is by a new door

        —William Carlos Williams, out of The Collected Poems
        of William Carlos Williams: 1939-1962

I was just born at the wrong time, to the wrong family, of the wrong gender. I mean who would ever want to be treated like a woman in a hospital? Certainly no rose-breasted grosbeak.

        —Bernadette Mayer, out of “Fixation” (Scarlet Tanager, 2005)

. . . words hang unwasted, hold formation, scale in a bevy downvalley just above the rusty willows and the river ripe with messages in corked vials (an old one of mine for Kansas still kicking—hope it makes it through the dam), veer along that hacksaw ridge, through a floppy pack of crows, and up into the vedas, the agrapha and jive, huh’s and sleeptalk, stupid questions, wrong directions, goodbyes at the stations, over slang slicks, past the Cellini cluster (the well-oiled flurry in a dark alley that paralyzed thieves), suitcases and silos full, hocus pocus, mumbo jumbo stirring gravel in kames, burps after passenger pigeon, sounds only Mavis Staples makes, last words, casual dismissals, calling dogs, summing ups (the hairball got ’em). . . .

        —Merrill Gilfillan, out of “Mouth of the Whosis” (Selected Poems, 1965-2000 2005)

. . . We want to transfer the immediate object, the immediate emotion to the poem—and yet the immediate always has hundreds of its own words clinging to it, short-lived and tenacious as barnacles. And it is wrong to scrape them off and substitute others. A poet is a time mechanic not an embalmer. The words around the immediate shrivel and decay like flesh around the body. No mummy-sheet of tradition can be used to stop the process. Objects, words must be led across time not preserved against it.

        —Jack Spicer, out of After Lorca (1957)

I remember daydreams of a doctor who (on the sly) was experimenting with a drug that would turn you into a real stud. All very “hush-hush.” (As it was illegal.) There was a slight chance that something might go wrong and that I'd end up with a really giant cock, but I was willing to take that chance.

I remember wondering if I looked queer.

        —Joe Brainard, out of I Remember (1975)

I am living with a very good fellow indeed, a Mr. Rice. He is unfortunately labouring under a complaint which has for some years been a burthen to him. This is a pain to me. He has a greater tact in speaking to people of the village than I have, and in those matters is a great amusement as well as a good friend to me. He bought a ham the other day, for say he “Keats, I don’t think a Ham is a wrong thing to have in a house.”

        —John Keats, out of a 6 July 1819 letter to Fanny Keats
        (Selected Letters of John Keats, 2002)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Field Marks

Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)

Off yesterday to Magee Marsh in Ohio, a patch of marshland along Lake Erie good for birding. Twenty or so different species of warblers. Somewhat fewer shorebirds, with good looks at some black-bellied plovers and a wheeling sharp-winged dynamo of a flock of dunlins. The rusty identificatory eye—the need to recall the pertinent field marks each yearly outing. The Peterson’s guide—the unrevised one (c. 1947), with outdated nomenclature (“myrtle warbler” versus the newer “yellow-rumped”—why change the names of things?)—tucked under my belt. How I thrilled—aged thirteen or so—to Roger Tory Peterson’s slightly fusty (“This lad had a book”) remarks in the preface to the famous Guide (lacking in the newer editions):
      Those of us who have read Ernest Thompson Seton’s semi-autobiographical story, Two Little Savages, remember how the young hero, Yan, discovered some mounted ducks in a dusty showcase and how he painstakingly made sketches of their patterns.
      This lad had a book which showed him how to tell ducks when they were in the hand, but since he only saw the live ducks at a distance, he was usually at a loss for their names. He noticed that all the ducks in the showcase were different—all had blotches or streaks that were their labels or identification tags. He decided that if he could put their labels or ‘uniforms’ down on paper, he would know these same ducks as soon as he saw them at a distance on the water.
      Many of us, later on, when the sport of bird-study first revealed its pleasurable possibilities, tried to locate a book—a guide—that would treat all birds in the manner that Yan and the ducks had suggested. We found many bird books, but although descriptions were complete and illustrations authoritative, the one thing we wished for—a ‘boiling down,’ or simplification of things so that any bird could be readily and surely told from all the others at a glance or at a distance—that, except fragmentarily, we were unable to find.
      We would study a colored plate of Warblers, thorough in its treatment of dull-colored juveniles and autumn plumages, but confusing in the similarity of them all. We would select some point on each bird as being perhaps the diagnostic feature, though we could not be certain. Fancied differences were noted, while the really distinctive characteristics were overlooked. This shadow of uncertainty that darkened many of our earlier finds of ‘rare’ birds marred our enjoyment of the study.
“Hence,” Peterson concludes, “this handbook—designed to complement the standard ornithological works, a guide to the field marks of Eastern birds . . .” Admittedly, the Earnest Thompson Seton books I subsequently sought out thrilled me little. Here’s the opening of the Two Little Savages (1903) chapter, “How Yan Knew the Ducks Afar,” with its talk of sketching, putting “uniforms down on paper”:
      One day as the great Woodpecker lay on his back in the shade he said in a tone of lofty command:
      “Little Beaver, I want to be amused. Come hyar. Tell me a story.”
      “How would you like a lesson in Tutnee?” was the Second Chief’s reply, but he had tried this before, and he found neither Sam nor Guy inclined to take any interest in the very dead language.
      “Tell me a story, I said,” was the savage answer of the scowling and ferocious Woodpecker.
      “All right,” said Little Beaver. “I’ll tell you a story of such a fine boy—oh, he was the noblest little hero that ever wore pantaloons or got spanked in school. Well, this boy went to live in the woods, and he wanted to get acquainted with all the living wild things. He found lots of difficulties and no one to help him, but he kept on and on—oh! he was so noble and brave—and made notes, and when he learned anything new he froze on to it like grim death. By and by he got a book that was some help, but not much. It told about some of the birds as if you had them in your hand. But this heroic youth only saw them at a distance and he was stuck. One day he saw a wild Duck on a pond so far away he could only see some spots of colour, but he made a sketch of it, and later he found out from that rough sketch that it was a Whistler, and then this wonderful boy had an idea. All the Ducks are different; all have little blots and streaks that are their labels, or like the uniforms of soldiers. ‘Now, if I can put their uniforms down on paper I’ll know the Ducks as soon as I see them on a pond a long way off.’ So he set to work and drew what he could find. One of his friends had a stuffed Wood-duck, so the ‘Boy-that-wanted-to-know’ drew that from a long way off. He got another from an engraving and two more from the window of a taxidermist shop. But he knew perfectly well that there are twenty or thirty different kinds of Ducks, for he often saw others at a distance and made far-sketches, hoping some day he’d find out what they were. Well, one day the ‘Boy-that-wanted-to-know’ sketched a new Duck on a pond, and he saw it again and again, but couldn’t find out what it was, and there was his b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l sketch, but no one to tell him its name, so when he saw that he just had to go into the teepee and steal the First War Chief’s last apple and eat it to hide his emotion.”
      Here Yan produced an apple and began to eat it with an air of sadness . . .
The original edition of Seton’s Two Little Savages—subtitled Being the Adventures of Two Boys who Lived as Indians and What They Learned—here containing a plate of drawings comparing various ducks (“Far-sketches showing common Ducks as seen on the water at about 50 yards distance. The pair is shown in each square, the male above . . .”—a kind of proto-Peterson arrangement), each with a short list of references to the “blots and streaks that are their labels” (“Black Duck or Dusky Duck (Anas obscura). Dark bill, red feet, no white except in flight, then shows white lining of wings.”) Fons et origo of Peterson’s method.

Field marks. Sketching. Home to read out of Jean Cocteau’s Journals two “testimonials,” resplendent, particular, notational, apt. One of Marcel Proust, “thin, cadaverous, wearing the beard of Carnot in his casket”:
      Proust put on and took off that black beard of a caliph as fast as the comedians who, in the provinces, imitate statesmen and orchestra leaders. I remember him with a beard, and I have seen him clean shaven as he appears in the painting of Jacques-Emile Blanche, an orchid in his buttonhole and his face looking like an egg.
      Proust used to receive me in that closed room. He would be on his bed, dressed, wearing a collar, a necktie, and gloves, in fearful terror of a perfume, a breath of air, an opened window, a ray of sun. “Dear Jean,” he would ask me, “didn’t you hold the hand of a lady who might have touched a rose?” “No, Marcel.” “Are you sure?” And half serious, half joking, he would explain that the phrase from Pelléas where the wind passes over the sea was enough to start up in him an attack of asthma.
      He lay stiffly across the bed in the wrong way, in a sarcophagus of remains of souls and landscapes and all that had not served him in Balbec, Combray, Méséglise, in the Countess de Chevigné, in Count Greffhule, in Haas and Robert de Montesquiou. He lay just as he did when we looked at his remains for the last time beside the pile of notebooks of his novel which continued to live at his left, like the wristwatches on dead soldiers.
      Each night he read to me from Swann’s Way.
Another of Guillaume Apollinaire:
      I knew him when he wore a pale-blue uniform, when his head was shaved and a scar on his forehead resembled a starfish. A device of leather and strips of cloth made for him a kind of turban or small helmet, which seemed to be concealing a microphone through which he heard what the rest of us could not hear and by which he kept in secret contact with a magic world. He transcribed its messages. Some of his poems do not even translate the code. We often saw him listen. He closed his eyes, hummed, dipped his pen in the inkwell. A drop of ink formed at the tip. It wavered and fell. It made a star on the paper. Alcools and Calligrammes were markings of a secret code . . .
      The unusual word (and he used many) lost, in Apollinaire’s art, all picturesqueness. The banal word became rare. The amethysts, moonstones, emeralds, carnelians, and agates in his poetry, he mounted, no matter where they came from, as a winnower winnows, seated on a café chair. No street artisan was more humble and more alert than this soldier in blue.
      He was large without being fat, his Roman face was pale, his mouth with a small mustache over it articulated words in a staccato voice, with a slightly pedantic and panting grace.
      His eyes laughed at the seriousness of his face. His hands of a priest accompanied his speech with gestures which recalled the gesture sailors affect when they drink and when they urinate.
      His laughter did not come from his mouth. It rose up from every part of his organism, like an invasion him. Then followed a silent laughter in his eyes, and his body resumed its balance. Wearing socks, without his leather leggings, his knee breeches tight over his legs, he crossed his small bedroom on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, climbed a few steps to the tiny study where we saw the de luxe edition of Serres Chaudes and the copper bird of the Beni . . .

Jean Cocteau, 1889-1963

Monday, May 13, 2013

Notebook (Louis Zukofsky, Edgar Allan Poe, Frank O’Hara, &c.)

Louis Zukofsky, 1904-1978

Cold, with cold’s staid and primeval light. Men scraping vehicles in May. Chores and errands thwarting yesterday’s intended sweet aimlessness. Zukofsky, out of “Peri Poietikes”: “What about measure, I learnt: / Look in your own ear and read. / Nor wrest knowledge / in no end of books.” Pound, in a note (18 November 1930) to Zukofsky: “Look into thine own ear and reade. All ballz and a great deal more are talked about prosody. If it dont ‘read’ good whasser use of it. Obviously the ole bokos that have a theory and read it ti tump ti tump ti TUMP / do NOT understand anything.” And Zukofsky, rehashing (out of the 1950 essay, “A Statement for Poetry”): “No verse is ‘free,’ however, if its rhythms inevitably carry the words in contexts that do not falsify the function of words as speech probing the possibilities and attractions of existence. This being the practice of poetry, prosody as such is of secondary interest to the poet. He looks, so to speak, into his ear as he does at the same time into his heart and intellect. His ear is sincere, if his words convey his awareness of the range of differences and subtleties of duration. He does not measure with handbook, and is not a pendulum . . .”

Zukofsky’s gleanings out of Poe’s Marginalia (out of Bottom: On Shakespeare):
‘All that the man of genius demands for his exaltation is moral matter in motion. It makes no difference whither tends the motion—whether for him or against him—and it is absolutely of no consequence “what is the matter.”’


‘. . . the naked Senses sometimes see too little—but then always they see too much.’


‘. . . in speaking of “moral courage” we imply the existence of the physical. Quite as reasonable an expression would be that of “bodily thought” . . .’


‘. . . something in the vanity of logic which addles a man’s brains. Your true logician gets, in time, to be logicalized, and then, so far as regards himself, the universe is one word. A thing, for him, no longer exists.’


‘I believe it is Montaigne who says—“People talk about thinking, but, for my part, I never begin to think until I sit down to write.” A better plan for him would have been, never to sit down to write until he had made an end of thinking.’


Noting Poe’s processual mien. Countering the clampdown of logic, wary of the systemic. Zukofsky (out of Bottom): “Reading Shakespeare has become for me partly a philosophy of suspecting philosophy and what I have called its Logical Fortunes. I mean ways of talking that are already granted a rather sublimated love. It loves its propositions which rarefy an existence that at one time drove them to propose. It is the look away from the intimacy of love.” Considering that, along with Poe’s “naked Senses” that “always . . . see too much”—out of a longer note beginning, “Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term ‘Art,’ I should call it ‘the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.’ The mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of ‘Artist’ . . .” and ending, “I have mentioned ‘the veil of the soul.’ Something of the kind appears indispensable in Art. We can, at any time, double the true beauty of an actual landscape by half closing our eyes as we look at it. The naked Senses sometimes see too little—but then always they see too much . . .”—I recall Frank O’Hara’s serious (and cheeky) bravado in “Personism: A Manifesto”:
Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.
The fleet look, half-veiled; the bounty of love marshaled by the particular; the whole pottage in singular stir (“sustaining . . . while preventing”); a poetics of “continual composition and decomposition” (Zukofsky quoting William Hazlitt).

William Hazlitt (out of “On Shakespeare and Milton”):
Shakspeare’s imagination is of the same plastic kind . . . “It glances from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.” Its movement is rapid and devious. It unites the most opposite extremes; or, as Puck says, in boasting of his own feats, “puts a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.” He seems always hurrying from his subject, even while describing it; but the stroke, like the lightning’s, is sure as it is sudden. He takes the widest possible range, but from that very range he has his choice of the greatest variety and aptitude of materials. He brings together images the most alike, but placed at the greatest distance from each other; that is, found in circumstances of the greatest dissimilitude. From the remoteness of his combinations, and the celerity with which they are effected, they coalesce the more indissolubly together. The more the thoughts are strangers to each other, and the longer they have been kept asunder, the more intimate does their union seem to become. Their felicity is equal to their force.