Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Notebook (André Maurois, Pierre Michon, Bruce Boone, &c.)

Pierre Michon

Out of André Maurois’s A Voyage to the Island of the Articoles, translated by Charlotte de Koch (Turtle Point, 2012):
      The mysteries of art are respected exactly as the mysteries of religion are in other countries. The most celebrated playwright in Maïana is Pedro Sanzoni, whose plays are beautiful but so obscure that most Béos don’t understand them. They admire Sanzoni all the more for this. Thus it happened that we witnessed, during our stay in Maïana, an episode that, for us, came to symbolize the attitude of the Béos.
      Sanzoni’s favorite actress, Noémi, was so passionate a performer that, directly she began to play any part, she fell into a sort of trance. To help her get into this nervous condition—which was necessary to her success—she required that her dresser put the name of the character she was going to play, rather than her own name, Noémi, on the door of her dressing room. On one of her first nights, the dresser having forgotten to change the name on the door, Noémi came on stage dressed and made up for a part that didn’t belong to the play. When the other actors heard her delivering the wrong lines, they tried to attract her attention and make her realize her mistake, but Noémi seemed not to notice them. Pedro Sanzoni, mortified, was about to jump on stage and stop the show, when, looking at the audience, he saw they were not in the least disturbed. He let his actors finish the act. The curtain fell to wild applause from the Béos, who were telling each other that Sanzoni had never written anything more daring.
      The censorship of the Articoles was such that it forbade the publication of any accounts of this episode in the Gazette. The play was printed as it had been performed, with the incoherent part substituted for that of the original text, and Sanzoni gave it a new title, A Figure from Another World. It has since become a Maïanian classic. . . .

Out of Pierre Michon’s The Eleven, translated by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays (Archipelago, 2013):
This period, which is a kind of climax of History and which, consequently, is justly called the Terror, one late winter, one spring, and one early summer, from the snows of Nivôse to the hot hand of Thermidor, is made of tight knots impossible to untangle, short-lived enthusiasms, reversals, wild fluctuations more uncontrollable than a seismograph needle when a volcano erupts; or if you prefer animal life to geology, it is like a rabbit hole when the ferret is released, except that here, all are both ferret and rabbit for all the others. The brothers, accomplices in the killing of Capet le Père, the orphans who no longer slept after the father’s death, were killing one another through the increasing force of momentum, mechanically and machinelike—and that is why the great cutting machine located on the Place de la Révolution, the guillotine, is such a perfect emblem of that time, in our dreams as in reality. With the Royalists fallen, the Feuillants fallen, the Girondists fallen, there were no more truly divergent opinions within the triumphant Montagne; as Michelet said so clearly, as you read in the antechamber, the brothers, the killers, who were still trying to distinguish themselves from one another since distinction is in man’s nature, all the brothers could find to put between them was the distinction of death. These men have excuses, Sir, and deserve our admiration on more than one account: they slept three hours a night for four years, like sleepwalkers they worked for the happiness of humankind, they throbbed in the hands of the living God. All that, the single distinction of death, the terrible hand of the living God, the ferrets in the hole, you have read between the lines in the notes in the little antechamber, even if it is not written there in black and white; in black and white it is written that there were, broadly speaking, three clear-cut partis, the orthodox under Robespierre, the moderates under Danton, the extremists under Hébert, and it is written that Robespierre thought this, Danton thought that, Hébert thought something else again; but you, Sir, who will not be taken in, who can read between the lines, you have read and read clearly that, with only the slightest nuances, Robespierre, the good Danton, and the bad Hébert wanted the same thing, that is, a more or less just Republic and within that Republic, power, but that death in them (exhaustion and death, the living God and death) wanted the big knife of distinction. . . .

Out of Bruce Boone’s Century of Clouds (Nightboat, 2009):
      Inseparable from this question of rhetoric is history, as our example of the Caribs has shown. One way of describing can be seen to triumph over another. And it’s not at all a question of keeping your hands clean—for anyone. Least of all for the historiographers, for the storytellers. How many of us whose function is to describe things have accepted such a characterization? Do we wish that our writing function could be free of its minatory qualities? Those holding the narrative office may accept its radical-negative implications only reluctantly. Each new description of things becomes a challenge to all the old ones, actively seeking to displace them, becoming new ways of seeing things. Contrary to the conventions then, writing is by nature a combative calling. New writings particularly are placed in opposition to old writings, and writings of groups newly coming to power contest vigorously the writings of the groups already in social dominance. But as a writing comes to be established, it comes to take on positive values. It sees itself as less contestatory than it actually is and it disavows its polemic origins. Its estimation of itself is as a maintainer of the status quo, and history comes to have less and less meaning for it. Time no longer seems to be change. The French social philosopher Guy Debord presents evidence of such a mentality in antiquity. ‘Those for whom irreversible time has ever existed,’ he asserts, ‘find in this same time both the memorable and the threat of oblivion: “Herodotus of Halicarnassus presents here the results of his investigations, in order that time not abolish the works of men . . .”’ What a disturbing mentality clothes itself in such sentences! Not to abolish the works of humankind—a strange way of putting it, I agree, a way of looking at things that would dissolve human conflict in human integration. . . .

Out of William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All (1923):
      The value of the imagination to the writer consists in its ability to make words. Its unique power is to give created forms reality, actual existence
      This separates
      Writing is not a searching about in the daily experience for apt similes and pretty thoughts and images. I have experienced that to my sorrow. It is not a conscious recording of the day’s experiences “freshly and with the appearance of reality”—This sort of thing is seriously to the development of any ability in a man, it fastens him down, makes him a—It destroys, makes nature an accessory to the particular theory he is following, it blinds him to his world,—
      The writer of imagination would find himself released from observing things for the purpose of writing them down later. He would be there to enjoy, to taste, to engage the free world, not a world which he carries like a bag of food, always fearful lest he drop something or someone get more than he.
      A world detached from the necessity of recording it, sufficient to itself, removed from him (as it most certainly is) with which he has bitter and delicious relations and from which he is independent—moving at will from one thing to another—as he pleases, unbound—complete . . .

Monday, June 24, 2013

Notebook (Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, &c.)

Ezra Pound, 1885-1972

Indolence persisting, and joined—with the all the sweet officiousness of a camp meddler—by some grosser hebetude. The cardinal’s red redder than the rose’s red. (Stella d’oro lilies festoon the suburban embankments, “the yellow of their yellow” jangling in the closed bag of pre-thunderstorm light . . .) I like how William Gaddis, in A Frolic of His Own (1994), quotes a line apropos “the stage” out of a letter dated “[Between 6 and 12] September 1915”) Ezra Pound writes to James Joyce, calling it “A gross, coarse form of art . . . speaking to a thousand fools huddled together . . .” Pound, who’s just read Joyce’s Exiles:
My whole habit of thinking of the stage is: that it is a gross, coarse form of art. That a play speaks to a thousand fools huddled together, whereas a novel or a poem can lie about in a book and find the stray persons worth finding, one by one seriatim. (so here I am with a clavichord—beside me, which I cant afford, and cant reasonably play on . . . . here I am chucked out of the Quarterly Review for having contributed ithyphallic satirical verse to “BLAST” . . . . . .
      and if I had written this letter last night (2 a.m.) just after finishing the “Portrait”, I should have addressed you “Cher Maitre”.
      Now what would he want to write for the stage for
                                          ?  ?  ?  ?  ?
Can one appeal to the mass with anything requiring thought? Is there anything but the common basis of a very few general emotions out of which to build a play that shall be at once
                              A. a stage play
                              B. not common, not a botch.
There is no union in intellect, when we think we diverge, we explore, we go away.
When we feel we unite.

By the “untrammeled” roundabout of morning’s own instigating—fossicking the impacted verbal plunder—one arrives at some seemingly pertinent lines out of Pound’s 1933 note to The English Journal:
      When Remy de Gourmont wrote me that a writer’s sole pleasure was the untrammeled expression of what he was thinking (“ce qu’il pense”) he used the present tense of the verb. He didn’t refer to something then writer HAD THOUGHT.
      Nobody thought it wd. be a nice thing for the aged Theodore Roosevelt to charge up San Juan Hill yet again in 1914 to wrest Cuba from the Spaniards. Frobenius notes the same distinction between the tenses of the verb in the healthy stage of narrative production. His Africans talk about what the leopard and antelope are doing and saying NOW, not what they did or said in the time of Aesop. They call the Aesop, “school book exercise.”
Pound reprints Remy de Gourmont’s “post-mark June 13, ’15” letter in the essay “Remy de Gourmont, a Distinction followed by notes” in Instigations (1920), oddly enough translating Gourmont’s (ungrammatical, Pound likely made a bad copy) lines “Le but de Mercure a été de permettre à ceux qui en valent la peine d’écrire franchement ce qu’il pense—seul plaisir d’un écrivain. Cela doit aussi être le vôtre . . .”:
      “The aim of the Mercure has been to permit any man who is worth it, to write down his thought frankly—this is a writer’s sole pleasure. And this aim should be yours.”
Pound here burying the doing—the divergent exploratory push of thinking—in the dud closure of “thought.” (Pound’s Frobenius recalls Fenellosa’s warning against English grammar’s tendency toward durcissement, its “lazy satisfaction with nouns and adjectives, and subsequent loss of “the verbal undertone of every noun.”)

“A novel or a poem can lie about in a book and find the stray persons worth finding, one by one seriatim . . .” That placid lack of the exhortatory, the breakneck, the clamorous, I like it. Like Gertrude Stein in “Introducing” (out of the 1928 Useful Knowledge):
This one was one who was doing something and another thing and another thing and in a way he was doing each thing in the same way as he was doing each other thing and in a way there were differences and in a way certainly there were not any differences at all . . . He was doing something and he certainly did it for sometime and it was certainly something he should then be doing. Some one might be thinking that he might be more successfully than doing some other thing but really not any one thought he should not be doing the thing he was doing when he was doing the thing and certainly he was very steadily doing the thing, the thing he was doing when he was doing that thing. In a way he had been doing a number of things, in a way he was always doing the same thing . . .
(Recalling—the way recalling makes a perpetuum mobile of itself, sliding along the fatty grease of its own making—the glibly defiant particulars of Ron Padgett’s “Tone Arm” opening—“You people of the future / How I hate you / You are alive and I’m not / I don’t care whether you read my poetry or not . . .”—and Ted Berrigan’s sassy taunt of a reply—“People of the future / while you are reading these poems, remember / you didn’t write them, / I did.”)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Notebook (William Gaddis, Herman Melville, &c.)

William Gaddis, 1922-1998

Usual indolent Friday, the honey-colored sunlight splashing down unheeding against the fence, the sooty-looking swifts skittering noisily along the sky’s “invysible and chaungeable” upswells of breeze, and me summoning up no pertinent syllables—copious, ransacked, or delinquent—with which finally to shut down the usual indolent week . . . What is the point of so endlessly arranging such glib and unimpeded re-arrangeables, words? (Williams, out of The Great American Novel: “Words cannot progress. There cannot be a novel. Break the words. Words are indivisible crystals. One cannot break them—Awu tsst grang splith gra pragh og bm— Yes, one can break them. One can make words. Progress? If I make a word I make myself into a word. Such is progress . . .”) Or there’s William Gaddis (A Frolic of His Own) quoting a line out of Larzer Ziff’s Literary Democracy (1981)—Ziff is talking about Melville’s tendency toward “pure wordplay” in The Confidence Man: “reality may not exist at all except in the words in which it presents itself.”

Out of Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own (1994):
. . . the conviction that risk of ridicule, of attracting defamatory attentions from his colleagues and even raucous demonstrations by an outraged public have ever been and remain the foreseeable lot of the serious artist, recalling among the most egregious examples Ruskin accusing Whistler of throwing a paint pot in the public’s face, the initial scorn showered upon the Impressionists and, once they were digested, upon the Cubists, the derision greeting Bizet’s musical innovations credited with bringing about his death of a broken heart, the public riots occasioned by the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and from the day Aristophanes labeled Euripides ‘a maker of ragamuffin mannequins’ the avalanche of disdain heaped upon writers: the press sending the author of Ode on a Grecian Urn ‘back to plasters, pills, and ointment boxes,’ finding Ibsen’s Ghosts ‘a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publicly’ and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina ‘sentimental rubbish,’ and in our own land the contempt accorded each succeeding work of Herman Melville, culminating in Moby Dick as ‘a huge dose of hyperbolical slang, maudlin sentimentalism and tragic-comic bubble and squeak,’* and since Melville’s time upon writers too numerous to mention. All this must most arguably in deed and intent affect the sales of their books and the reputations whereon rest their hopes of advances and future royalties, yet to the court’s knowledge none of this opprobrium however enviously and maliciously conceived and however stupid, careless, and ill informed in its publication has ever yet proved grounds for a successful action resulting in recovery from the marplot. In short, the artist is fair game and his cause is turmoil. To echo the words of Horace, Pictoribus atque poetis quidlibet audendisemper fuit aequa potestas, in this daring invention the artist comes among us not as the bearer of idées recues embracing art as decoration or of the comfort of churchly beliefs enshrined in greeting card sentiments but rather in the aesthetic equivalent of one who comes on earth ‘not to send peace, but a sword.’
* Out of a survey of Melville’s work up to the 1852 Pierre (“Speaking of the passengers on board Redburn’s ship Highlander, Mr. Melville significantly and curtly observes, ‘As for the ladies, I have nothing to say concerning them, for ladies are like creeds; if you cannot speak well of them, say nothing.’ He will pardon us for including in this somewhat arbitrary classification of forms of beauty and forms of faith, his own, last, and worst production, Pierre; or, the Ambiguities . . .”) signed “Sir Nathaniel” (pseudonym of Francis Jacox) in the July 1853 issue of the New Monthly Magazine (London, England):
      For so successful a trader in “marine stores” as Mr. Melville, The Whale seemed a speculation every way big with promise. From such a master of his harpoon might have been expected a prodigious hit. There was about blubber and spermaceti something unctuously suggestive, with him for whaleman. And his three volumes entitled The Whale undoubtedly contain much vigorous description, much wild power, many striking details. But the effect is distressingly marred throughout by an extravagant treatment of the subject. The style is maniacal—mad as a March hare—mowing, gibbering, screaming, like an incurable Bedlamite, reckless of keeper or strait waistcoat. Now it vaults on stilts, and performs Bombastes Furioso with contortions of figure, and straining strides, and swashbuckler fustian, far beyond Pistol in that Ancient’s happiest mood. Now it is seized with spasms, acute and convulsive enough to excite bewilderment in all beholders. When he pleases, Mr. Melville can be so lucid, straightforward, hearty, and unaffected, and displays so unmistakable a shrewdness, and satirical sense of the ridiculous, that it is hard to suppose that he can have indited the rhodomontade to which we allude. Surely the man is a Doppelganger—a dual number incarnate (singular though he be, in and out of all conscience):—surely he is two single gentlemen rolled into one, but retaining their respective idiosyncrasies—the one sensible, sagacious, observant, graphic, and producing admirable matter—the other maundering, drivelling, subject to paroxysms, cramps, and total collapse, and penning exceeding many pages of unaccountable “bosh.” So that in tackling every new chapter, one is disposed to question it beforehand, “Under which king, Bezonian?”—the sane or the insane; the constitutional and legitimate, or the absolute and usurping? Writing of Leviathan, he exclaims, “Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand ! Friends, hold my arms!” Oh that his friends had obeyed that summons! They might have saved society from a huge dose of hyperbolical slang, maudlin sentimentalism, and tragi-comic bubble and squeak.
Oh the savagery of the American lyric paroxysmus! (“When thei bee in their traunce, or paroxismos, the smoke of it maketh theim to awake.”) “Sir Nathaniel” writes next: “His Yankeeisms are plentiful as blackberries. ‘I am tormented,’ quoth he, ‘with an everlasting itch for things remote.’” Me, too. Schism and click in the angelic parvenu light . . . “I make myself into a word.”

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Harriet Monroe and The Great American Novel

Harriet Monroe, 1860-1936

William Carlos Williams, out of Paterson Book III (1949):
—of this, make it of this, this
this, this, this, this             .
And, out of the end of The Great American Novel (1923):
      What difference is it whether I make the words or take the words. It makes no difference whatever.
      He took any kind of rags just as they were collected, filth or grease right on them the way they were and teased them up into a fluffy stuff which he put through a rolling process and made into sheets of wadding. These sheets were fed mechanically between two layers of silkolene and a girl simply sat there with an electric sewing device which she guided with her hand and drew in the designs you see on those quilts, you know.
      You’ve seen this fake oilcloth they are advertising now. Congoleum. Nothing but building paper with a coating of enamel.
      ¡O vida tan dulce!

After a rather cursory look around, I haphazardly conclude that it’s gone previously unnoted—how William Carlos Williams, in The Great American Novel (1923), included therein la plupart of a Harriet Monroe commentary titled “Flamboyance,” a piece found in the November 1922 issue of Poetry (Vol. XXI, No. 2). Here’s the Monroe:
      “America needs the flamboyant to save her soul”—so said Vachel Lindsay at one of those Glacier Park camp-fires where he and Stephen Graham talked of art and life to the indifferent mountains.
      He might have added that America tries to satisfy this need in strange and often uncatalogued ways. America, living an exemplary three-meals-a-day-and-bed-time life in a wall-papered home, goes now and then en masse to the circus to see men, women and animals perform exquisite and impossible feats of grace and daring. What could be more flamboyant than the trapeze-performer hurtling through the air, the tiger leaping through man-made hoops, or the elephant poising his mighty bulk on his two forelegs lifted to the top of bottles? What more flamboyant than the painted clown, timeless type of the race, laughing that he may not weep, grinning through a thousand tragic jests while little human beings perform their miraculous tricks around him?
      And America, sitting respectably at home with its newspaper; America, suppressing its feelings and censoring its artists; America, fearing emotion as the gateway to perdition—America finds the flamboyant in the courts, and listens to every passion-molded word uttered to judge and jury in Reno or New Brunswick or South Bend.
      Jazz, the Follies, the flapper in orange and green gown and war-paint of rouge, the skyscraper lighting its thousand windows, the airplane skimming the clouds, the freshman shouting his college yell—these are all extravagant, impossible frenzies of color in a world that refuses to be drab. Even the movies, devoid as they are of color in the physical sense, are gaudy in the imaginations of the people who watch them; gaudy with exaggerated romance, exaggerated comedy, exaggerated splendor or grotesqueness or passion. Human souls who are not living impassioned lives, not creating romance and splendor and grotesqueness—phases of beauty’s infinite variety—such people wistfully try to find these things outside themselves; a futile, often a destructive quest.
      The imagination will not down. If it is not a dance, a song, it becomes an outcry, a protest. If it is not flamboyance it becomes deformity; if it is not art, it becomes crime. Men and women can not be content, any more than children, with the mere facts of a humdrum life—the imagination must adorn and exaggerate life, must give it splendor and grotesqueness, beauty and infinite depth. And the mere acceptance of these things from without is not enough—it is not enough to agree and assert when the imagination demands for satisfaction creative energy. Flamboyance expresses faith in that energy—it is a shout of delight, a declaration of richness. It is at least the beginning of art.
Signed “H. M.” Williams’s use of the material (with a few minor cuts and fewer inserts) occurs in chapter XII:
      That cat is funny. I think she’d be a good one for the circus. When she’s hungry she bites your legs. Then she jumps at you as much as to say: Caramba, give me something.
      America needs the flamboyant to save her soul—said Vachel Lindsay to the indifferent mountains.
      He might have added that America tries to satisfy this need in strange and often uncatalogued ways. America, living an exemplary three-meals-a-day-and-bed-time life in a wall-papered home, goes now and then en masse, by Gosh, to the circus to see men, women and animals perform exquisite and impossible feats of daring. What could be more flamboyant than the trapeze-performer hurtling through the air, the tiger leaping through man-made hoops, or the elephant poising his mighty bulk on his two forelegs lifted to the top of bottles? What more flamboyant than the painted clown, timeless type of the race, laughing that he may not weep, grinning through a thousand tragic jests while little human beings perform their miraculous tricks around him?
      Jazz, the Follies, the flapper in orange and green gown and war-paint of rouge—impossible frenzies of color in a world that refuses to be drab. Even the movies, devoid as they are of color in the physical sense, are gaudy in the imaginations of the people who watch them; gaudy with exaggerated romance, exaggerated comedy, exaggerated splendor of grotesqueness or passion. Human souls who are not living impassioned lives, not creating romance and splendor and grotesqueness—phases of beauty’s infinite variety—such people wistfully try to find these things outside themselves; a futile, often a destructive quest.
      The imagination will not down. If it is not a dance, a song, it becomes an outcry, a protest. If it is not flamboyance it becomes deformity; if it is not art, it becomes crime. Men and women cannot be content, any more than children, with the mere facts of a humdrum life—the imagination must adorn and exaggerate life, must give it splendor and grotesqueness, beauty and infinite depth. And the mere acceptance of these things from without is not enough—it is not enough to agree and assert when the imagination demands for satisfaction creative energy. Flamboyance expresses faith in that energy—it is a shout of delight, a declaration of richness. It is at least the beginning of art.
      All right go ahead: A TEXAS PRIZE CONTEST—The Southern Methodist University at Dallas, Texas, recently emerged from a prize contest which had a strange dénouement
      Look here young man, after this you examine those girls in the cold weather.
      Who is Warner Fabian? Flaming Youth is the story of the super-flapper, of her affairs at country clubs and cozy home-dances with all the accompaniments of prohibition stimulants. Warner Fabian believes that the youth of this country feeds on excitement and rushes to knowledge “heeled” by way of petting parties and he elemental stimulus of jazz. The barriers of convention are down . . .
And so forth, off into a brief investigation of the 1923 book by the pseudonymous (for Samuel Hopkins Adams) Warner Fabian. Oddly enough, Williams’s paragraph beginning “All right go ahead”—a kind of exhortatory parallel to the earlier pre-grab “Caramba, give me something”—uses both title and opening line of a (directly) subsequent “H. M.”-penned commentary in the same November 1922 issue of Poetry.

No news per se in the way Williams assembled borrowed material.* Hugh Kenner, in “A Note on The Great American Novel” (out of the 1958 Gnomon: Essays on Contemporary Literature) refers to both its “blocks of verbal material” and how it is “the dream of a writer who hasn’t written a word, and it parodies certain naïve motives for undertaking authorship which—once more—are part of Williams’ subject.” Kenner:
. . . the “Novel,” bringing its lyric phases under progressively stricter control, acquires by cunning trial and error a reliable tone which in the final chapters can handle with a compositor’s sureness a surprising variety of materials and effects: from “Particles of falling stars, coming to nothing. The air pits them, eating out the softer parts” to “The Perfection of Pisek-designed Personality Modes: A distinctly forward move in the realm of fashion is suggested by the new personality modes, designed by Pisek . . .”
It is entirely likely that other borrowings of “verbal material”—“small (or large)”—are evident, or traceable.** What I find notable—and somewhat lamentable—is how Monroe’s fine final outburst (“The imagination will not down . . .”), routinely assigned to Williams (and seeming to fit perfectly), makes its incognito way in the world. So Charles Altieri (oddly glossing “The imagination will not down . . .” as “The imagination will not d[r]own . . .”) in a piece (rather ironically) titled “Rhetoric and Poetics: How to Use the Inevitable Return of the Repressed” writes of Monroe’s lines: “Here William Carlos Williams provides a striking example when he imagines how a poetry resistant to rhetoric might be central to democracy.” Or there’s Herbert Leibowitz, in “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You”: The Life and Works of William Carlos Williams quoting Monroe’s lines in order to evoke a pulpit-mounted and afflatus-scorched Williams, one who “exhorts us to find the grace that imagination’s holy powers alone bestow.” (Note: Williams cut Monroe’s “impossible feats of grace and daring” to “impossible feats of daring.”)
* Williams himself seemingly had little to say about The Great American Novel. In the Autobiography he (rather flippantly and with a modicum of accuracy) calls it “a satire on the novel form in which a little (female) Ford car fall more or less in love with a Mack truck.” In a 26 March 1924 letter to Kenneth Burke, Williams seems ambivalent (if not dismissive):
      Yes, my Gr. Am. Novel never found a beginning. It was that I must have wanted to say. And that’s how you get me, one of the ones with that that I am after. It’s got to be said to be read. I am trying to speak. To tell it in the only way possible, but I do want to say what there is. It is not for me merely to arrange things prettily. Oh purple anemones! (you get what I mean? I mean “Shit.” But I’m through with that now. No more “shits.” It is dead, that kind of slang.)
** In the June 1922 issue of a monthly magazine called The Mentor (Vol. 10, No. 5) one discovers a number of paragraphs Williams used in chapter XIII of The Great American Novel. Thus (out of a piece called “Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellers” by Ronne C. Shelsé)—
      Afterward came the cliff dwellers—a much advanced race—who formed a partnership with nature in the science of home building. They fashioned stones into perfect blocks and built the solid walls which have withstood the lashing storms of time forgotten. Masterpieces of architecture, the survivals of the cliff dwellings tell the story in the mute language of the ages . . .
—is transformed by Williams into—
      The Mesa Verde cliff dwellers—a much advanced race—formed a partnership with nature in the science of home building. Masterpieces of architecture, the survivals of the cliff dwellings tell the story of the ages . . .
A couple of paragraphs later, Williams uses nearly verbatim this lengthy caption to an illustration of a Navaho blanket (out of a piece called “Indian Blankets and Their Makers” by George Wharton James):
      The word bayeta is merely Spanish for baize. Great quantities of this were made in England for the Spanish and Mexican trade, the major part of which was of a brilliant red color. In this way English baize became Spanish bayeta to the Indians of the American Southwest. Familiar with the art of weaving, these Indians unraveled the bayeta, retwisted it into one, two, or three strands, and then rewove it into their blankets, which are now almost priceless. This old blanket was picked up by the author in a New Mexican corral, for the purpose of wiping his buggy axle. It was covered with filth and mud. A number of “washings” revealed this glorious specimen of the weaver’s art.
Williams’s next paragraph—it, too, verbatim—is out of an unsigned item in The Mentor titled “Why Did They Say No?”
      Accepted by a cultured and talented belle, Lincoln, according to his law partner, had already been refused by Sarah Rickard, an obscure miss of sixteen, of whom apparently nothing further is known.
And so forth. Art out of the assemblagist’s idle page-flippings and recklessly sure intuitings.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Notebook (Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, &c.)

Robert Duncan, c. 1984
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Robert Duncan (c. 1967, in conversation with L. S. Dembo), out of the Christopher Wagstaff-edited A Poet’s Mind: Collected Interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985 (North Atlantic Books, 2012):
When I’m writing a poem, I no longer have access to the meaning of a word. I use the OED not because I think I can give the word a history or because I can get to a root meaning, but because the OED provides me with a story—an immediate sort of material right there. If I were thinking, I’d be thinking about the definitions and meanings, and that’s the last thing I want to do. My poetry is filled with talk about boundaries, and especially intriguing to me is that the universe has only the boundaries that we imagine and so we’re constantly imagining other boundaries.
      I think of a poem as taking place on the ground of language, which is a pure creative ground. We don’t make up language ourselves, and we don’t think it. The OED snaps me out of what a word does mean. It gives me reference all the way across to the word as it actually exists in a communal sense, and I work with words thinking of them as communal, not expressing something in me. It’s like the absorption of a child building with blocks. He’s not thinking; he’s building architectures.

Jack Spicer, out of After Lorca (1957):
When I translate one of your poems and I come across words I do not understand, I always guess at their meanings. I am inevitably right. A really perfect poem (no one yet has written one) could be perfectly translated by a person who did not know one word of the language it was written in. A really perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary.
      It is very difficult. 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 . . .
      Most of my friends like words too well. They set them under the blinding light of the poem and try to extract every possible connotation from each of them, every temporary pun, every direct or indirect connection—as if a word could become an object by mere addition of consequences. Others pick up words from the streets, from their bars, from their offices and display them proudly in their poems as if they were shouting, “See what I have collected from the American language. Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!”

Gilbert Sorrentino, out of “The Act of Creation and Its Artifact” (Something Said, [1984]), opening with Walter Benjamin’s line out of “The Task of the Translator”: “No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener . . .”
Eliot, in “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism,” writes: “What a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author; and indeed, in the course of time a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning—or without forgetting, merely changing.” There is a story told of the late Jack Spicer, reading proofs of one of his books with friends, who pointed out to him that one of the poems in the book was exactly—word for word and line for line—the same as another poem in the book. To which Spicer replied that the poem had to stay because it was written at a different time and was, therefore, a different poem. This is only truly understandable in light of Jack Spicer’s practice of writing poems by the process of what he called “dictation” . . . We may go back to the middle of the twelfth century, and discover Marcabru, the Provençal troubadour, writing:
I’ll take him on as critic,
who’ll call the meaning in my song,
of each word,
who’s analytic, who
can see the structure of the vers unfold.
I know it’ll sound absurd, but
I’m often doubtful and go wrong myself
in the explication of an obscure word,
for I myself have trouble
clearing up obscure passages.*

Duncan (again):
I don’t have the experience of thinking when I’m writing poetry. Certainly I don’t feel the poem as a problem, for instance, that I’m trying to find the solution for. The experience I have in a poem is very much as if my brain were dancing, not thinking. Right now I’m trying to think what thinking is and something very different happens than when we were talking before and going along with meanings and ideas . . .

William Carlos Williams, out of the “Prologue” to Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920):
      Although it is a quality of the imagination that it seeks to place together those things which have a common relationship, yet the coining of similes is a pastime of very low order, depending as it does upon a nearly vegetable coincidence. Much more keen is that power which discovers in things those inimitable particles of dissimilarity to all other things which are the peculiar perfections of the thing in question.
      But this loose linking of one thing with another has effects of a destructive power little to be guessed at: all manner of things are thrown out of key so that it approaches the impossible to arrive at an understanding of anything. All is confusion, yet, it comes from a hidden desire for the dance, a lust of the imagination, a will to accord two instruments in a duet . . .
* Referring, seemingly, to the opening lines of Marcabru’s “Per savi teing ses doptanza”:
Per savi teing ses doptanza
celui qu’e mon chan devina
cho que chascus moz declina,
si com la razos despleia,
qu’eu meteis sui en erranza
d’esclarzir paraula escura.
(“I unhesitatingly consider wise the man who can divine in my song what each word means, as the theme unfolds, for I myself have difficulty in clarifying obscure speech.”) Subsequent lines point to the childishness (“sen d’enfanza”) of troubadours who “deliberately interweave words with fragmentation” (“fan los moz per esmanza / entrebescaz de fraitura”). Pertinent, too: lines out of the Marcabru fragment “[Co]ntra [l’i]vern que s’e[n]ansa”—
Selh qui fes lo vers e e·l tresc
no sap don si mou la tresca.

Marcabrus a fag lo tresc
e no sap don mou la tresca.
(“He who composed the poem and the dance-tune does not know where the round-dance begins. // Marcabru composed the dance-tune and yet does not know where the round-dance begins.”)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Letters of William Gaddis (Stray Notes)

William Gaddis, 1922-1998

Final stray points d’intérêt rounded up out of The Letters of William Gaddis (indulging some gaffe of a procedural that leads my obligatory “notebook”-ing toward a perceived eventuality of use, that necessary and sufficient fiction). So be it. There’s the lovely phrase got out of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886): “the melancholia of things completed.” Nietzsche:
      It is too bad! Always the old story! When a man has finished building his house, he finds that he has learnt unawares something which he ought absolutely to have known before he—began to build. The eternal, fatal “Too late!” The melancholia of everything completed!
And Gaddis (out of The Recognitions):
I look at the clean paper that I’m saving to write the finished score on, and then I look at the pile of . . . what I’ve been working on, and, well I can see it all right there, finished. And yet, well . . . you know I never read Nietzsche, but I did come across something he said somewhere, somewhere where he mentioned “the melancholia of things completed.” Do you . . . well that’s what he meant. I don’t know, but somehow you get used to living among palimpsests. Somehow that’s what happens, double and triple palimpsests pile up and you keep erasing, and altering, and adding, always trying to account for this accumulation, to order it, to locate every particle in its place in one whole . . .
Recalling a tiny barrage of stability’s refusals—say, Charles Olson’s “keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen” (“Projective Verse”) or A. R. Ammons’s “I don’t want shape: / I’ll have water muscles bending streams (recurrences of // curvature): wind sheets erect, traveling: lips accommodating / muscle glides: identity in me’s a black, clear bead: I’ve / strongboxed and sunk it, musseled and barnacled with lock, // but it’s breathing in there, a dumb eager little botch” or—later, with a sense of death’s dopey finality—“crush a bug and the universe goes hollow / with hereafter” (Sphere: The Form of a Motion).

William Gaddis writing to Donn O’Meara and William Carnahan (19 November 1993), quoting the opening lines of Tennyson’s “Tithonus” (1859):
And here The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, / The vapours weep their burthen to the ground, / Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath, / And after many a summer dies the swan . . . literally, literally; & did I ever mention that a ½ century ago I changed my middle name on Harvard’s transcripts from ‘Thomas’ to ‘Tithonus’ there conjuring the day when through Eos’ intervention I’d secure immortality forgetting, in our lust, to stipulate eternal youth, until the day comes round (Here at the quiet limit of the world) when, pitying, the Dawn to the rescue has him transformed into the grasshopper with its relentless immortal tdzzzk, tdzzzk, tdzzzk . . .
(Thus in Agapē Agape: “. . . where there is no present moment but only the next one being devoured in the immense maw of the past, where immortality finds its home at last, where the voice has dwindled to the dry scratch of a grasshopper . . .”) (Too, there’s the implacable dry scratch of Gaddis’s humor: I think of a remark regarding a somewhat unlavish room in Rome, that its simplicity’d nevertheless “provide refuge from that operatic people while we sample their remains . . .”)

Out of a 12 April 1981 letter to William H. Gass, regarding Carpenter’s Gothic (1985), a book Gaddis calls (in a later letter) “a willed book”—“unlike its predecessors which, in Samuel Butler’s phrase,* ‘demanded to be written’”:
      I should also note I really am working on the book, the ‘romance’ (nothing I think that can be accused as ‘experimental’ here!), came back a few days ago from Mexico with 50 clean first draft pages so it is not all hornswoggle (though it may turn out to be about hornswoggle) . . .
Joyce?:     Q. What are you writing about?
                    A. I am not writing about something. I am writing something.
Enough of that.
Referring to Samuel Beckett’s lines regarding Joyce’s Work in Progress in “Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . . Joyce” (1929):
      Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read—or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something, it is that something itself.
Oddly enough, in the highly Beckettian monologue Agapē Agape (2002), Gaddis again assigns Joyce the line:
. . . pianos nobody can play and millions of piano rolls left in the dust while their splendid phantom hands are pushed further from reach by the gramophone and finally paralyzed by the radio teaching birds to sing birdsongs O God, O God, O God, Chi m’a tolto a me stesso that’s Michelangelo, that's from my book, Ch’a me fusse più presso O più di me potessi that’s in my book, who has taken from me that self who could do more, and what is your book about Mister Joyce? It’s not about something Madam, it is something and goodbye to that hidden talent, those ghostly fingers hard as petrified wood . . .
Pertinent: Gaddis’s 19 July 1988 note to Don Delillo regarding Libra (1988), “its marriage of style & content” and how such
is marvelously illustrated here I think & especially as it comes together at the end as we know it must, speaking of the ‘nonfiction’ novel if we must but why must we, except that concept does embrace the American writer’s historic obsession getting the facts down clear (from “tells me more about whales than I really want to know” to Dreiser tapemeasuring Clyde’s cell at Sing Sing, or Jack London’s “Give me the fact, man, the irrefragable fact!”) & again one marvels at what you’ve marshaled in this impressive piece of work.
Pertinent, too: William Carlos Williams’s lines out of Spring and All (1923):
      Nature is the hint to composition not because it is familiar to us and therefore the terms we apply to it have a least common denominator quality which gives them currency—but because it possesses the quality of independent existence, of reality which we feel in ourselves. It is not opposed to art but apposed to it.

      I suppose Shakespeare’s familiar aphorism about holding the mirror up to nature has done more harm in stabilizing the copyist tendency of the arts among us than—

      the mistake in it (though we forget that it is not S. speaking but an imaginative character of his) is to have believed that the reflection of nature is nature. It is not. It is only a sham nature, a “lie.”

      Of course S. is the most conspicuous example desirable of the falseness of this very thing.

      He holds no mirror up to nature but with his imagination rivals nature’s composition with his own.

      He himself becomes “nature”—continuing “its” marvels—if you will . . .
Williams’s essay “A Point for American Criticism” is included in the 1929 Beckett-edited Our Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination (wherein Beckett’s “Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . . Joyce” is printed). No sign that Beckett read Williams’s 1923 Spring and All.
* Out of The Notebooks of Samuel Butler (under the rubric “My Books”):
I never make them: they grow; they come to me and insist on being written, and on being such and such. I did not want to write Erewhon, I wanted to go on painting and found it an abominable nuisance being dragged willy-nilly into writing it. So with all my books—the subjects were never of my own choosing; they pressed themselves upon me with more force than I could resist. If I had not liked the subjects I should have kicked, and nothing would have got me to do them at all. As I did like the subjects and the books came and said they were to be written, I grumbled a little and wrote them.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Letters of William Gaddis (Stray Notes)

William Gaddis, 1922-1998

William Gaddis, out of a 28 September 1993 letter to “the Editors, Iowa Review” regarding an upcoming “experimental fiction” issue:
I fear . . . that in this deluge of critical approaches and categories—high modern, post-modern, deconstruction, post-structural, where I frequently see my work discussed at length—‘experimental’ is the one which I find specifically unsuited, due to my sense of the decline in the use and meaning of ‘experimental’ and ‘experiment’ from the blunt dictionary definition as ‘A test made to demonstrate a known truth’ to which I should happily subscribe, to the rather loose embrace of writing pursued willy-nilly in some fond hope of stumbling on those strokes of brilliance which that perfect poet Keats mistrusted even in himself observed with “It is true that in the height of enthusiasm I have been cheated into some fine passages; but that is not the thing.”
      From the start almost a half century ago I have believed (& Keats to witness) that I knew exactly what I am doing: as ‘known truth’ for example, that style must match content, hence the fragmentation in The Recognitions; language and disorder, in J R; exercising the cliche in Carpenter’s Gothic; language and order in A Frolic of His Own.
      Thus it would be quite unseemly (not to say inflammatory) for me to name as ‘carrying the torch of the experimental movement’ writers who might well feel that they too know exactly what they are doing as I trust you will understand, as I trust you will further understand that I have no wish or intention of belittling your generous appraisal of my work. I have no short stories recent or otherwise, I do not wear T shirts, but can at least respond to your notion regarding ‘the work of new and established visual artists who use text in their works’ with the enclosed from Julian Schnabel’s Recognitions Series (there are a half dozen or so of them nicely reproduced in his catalogues &c) which you may find pertinent.
The Keats line out of an 8 March 1819 letter to B. R. Haydon—found thus worded in Gaddis’s 1949 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. In context (out of the 2002 Grant F. Scott-edited Selected Letters of John Keats):
What a set of little people we live amongst. I went the other day into an ironmonger’s shop, without any change in my sensations; men and tin kettles are much the same in these days. They do not study like children at five and thirty, but they talk like men at twenty. Conversation is not a search after knowlege, but an endeavour at effect. In this respect two most opposite men, Wordsworth and Hunt, are the same. A friend of mine observed the other day that if Lord Bacon were to make any remark in a party of the present day, the conversation would stop on the sudden. I am convinced of this, and from this I have come to the resolution never to write for the sake of writing, or making a poem, but from running over with any little knowledge and experience which many years of reflection may perhaps give me; otherwise I will be dumb. What Imagination I have I shall enjoy, and greatly, for I have experienced the satisfaction of having great conceptions without the toil of sonnetteering. I will not spoil my love of gloom by writing an ode to darkness; and with respect to my livelihood I will not write for it, for I will not mix with that most vulgar of all crowds the literary. Such things I ratify by looking upon myself, and trying myself at lifting mental weights, as it were. I am three and twenty with little knowledge and middling intellect. It is true that in the height of enthusiasm I have been cheated into some fine passages, but that is nothing.
Schnabel’s Recognitions series—originally exhibited in 1988 in the ruins of the El Carmen monastery in Seville—included words or phrases out of The Recognitions. Schnabel: “Letters are real. For me they’re pictorial elements that also have a sociological connotation and a historical, temporal connotation.”

Julian Schnabel, “The Afflicted Organ,” 1987

Julian Schnabel, “Turba Philosophorum,” 1987

Julian Schnabel, “Cortes,” 1988

Friday, June 14, 2013

Notebook (T. S. Eliot, Tomas Tranströmer, &c.)

T. S. Eliot, c. 1949
(Portrait by Patrick Heron)

“Where is the summer, the unimaginable / Zero summer?” T. S. Eliot, out of “Little Gidding.” Something implacably dogged in the proceedings of late. Dog barking like crazy and pawing uselessly at the air. Dog at the end of a chain tethered to the fraught and inconceivable earth. Slouch hellhound of the dunghill—“with wide Cerberean mouths.” Roland Barthes (Writing Degree Zero):
      Hébert, the revolutionary, never began a number of his news-sheet Le Père Duchêne without introducing a sprinkling of obscenities. These improprieties had no real meaning, but they had significance. In what way? In that they expressed a whole revolutionary situation. Now here is an example of a mode of writing whose function is no longer only communication or expression, but the imposition of something beyond language, which is both History and the stand we take in it . . .
The snarl of mere presence: “You are not here to verify, / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report.”

Solace of a sort. (Is it solace, or merely a focusing, a brief realia of means bursting out of the usual inchoate, a pre-imago romp and borrowing?) Out of Tomas Tranströmer’s “Baltics” (“Östersjöar”):

July 30th. The strait has become eccentric—swarming with jellyfish today for the first time in years, they pump themselves forward calmly and patiently, they belong to the same line: Aurelia, they drift like flowers after a sea burial, if you take them out of the water their entire form vanishes, as when an indescribable truth is lifted out of silence and formulated into an inert mass, but they are untranslatable, they must stay in their own element.

August 2nd. Something wants to be said, but the words don’t agree.
Something which can’t be said,
there are no words, but perhaps a style . . .

You can wake up in the small hours
jot down a few words
on the nearest paper, a newsprint margin
(the words radiate meaning!)
but in the morning: the same words now say nothing, scrawls, slips of the tongue.
Or fragments of the high nocturnal style that drew past?
Solace of the odd vocables, crepitant and palpable, sea-pebbles in the mouth: “Någonting som inte kan sägas, / afasi, / det finns inga ord men kanske en stil . . .” Something which can’t be said . . . “something beyond language.” “Eller fragment av den stora nattliga stilen . . .” Fragments of the high nocturnal.

“Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet and hail of verbal imprecisions, / Approximate thoughts and feelings, words that have taken the place of thoughts and feelings, / There spring the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation.” (Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”) And Tranströmer (with its Eliotic echoes):

Bullhead. The fish who is a toad who wanted to become a butterfly and succeeded a third of the way, hides himself in the seaweed but is drawn up in the nets, hooked fast by his pathetic spikes and warts—when you disentangle it from the meshes your hands gleam with slime.

Rockface. Out on the sun-warmed lichens the insects scurry, they’re in a rush like second hands—the pine throws a shadow, it moves slowly like an hour hand—inside me time stands still, an infinity of time, the time required to forget all languages and to invent perpetuum mobile.

Recalling—is it?—“. . . And time yet for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions . . .” Or: “What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands / What water lapping the bow / And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog . . .” Out of Eliot’s “Marina”—with its querulous epigraph “Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga?”—and its solacing incantatory brief:
Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning
Death . . .

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Notebook (Robert Duncan, William Gaddis, George Herms, &c.)

George Herms

“. . . there arrived from George Herms . . . in Los Angeles a little household alter, enshrining two photos of Garbo as enigma, beauty and woman; but the assemblage is also a homunculus, with the woman in two phases enshrined in his heart. The curving brace from some table rises as a lyrical penis. A rusted metal top as a hat or head. And then, what triumphs in the work is the triumph we knew in childhood—that it’s a curved piece of wood that’s a penis, or a top, or a head, or the whole an altar or a little man is not the wonder. But the aliveness of the work. How George Herms is entirely with us in it . . .” Robert Duncan, out of a 15 March 1963 letter to Denise Levertov (The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov)

“. . . Jess thought of himself essentially as rescuing objects. In other words, you take something from a context like Life magazine which is a really despicable context, and you rescue it. You’re not only rescuing its photographs but you’re rescuing Life magazine from itself. Sometimes you’re doing what Burroughs was doing: you’re showing Life magazine what Life magazine looks like . . .” Robert Duncan, c. 1976, in “A Conversation about Poetry and Painting” (out of the Christopher Wagstaff-edited A Poet’s Mind: Collected Interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985)

“. . . not as a failed writer, but as a man who might have been capable of almost anything if he’d found it worth doing but ends finding it too late even to be any of the things he’d never wanted to be, returns to writing a last resort and fails even at that . . .” William Gaddis, regarding the Gaddis-like Jack Gibbs in J R (1975).

. . . we are so many

            and many within themselves
travel to far islands but no-one
asks for their story

nor is there an exchange of gifts, stranger
            to stranger
nor libation
nor sacrifice to the gods

and no house has its herm.
Out of Denise Levertov’s “In Abeyance”

“. . . Assemblage is not incoherent; it doesn’t worry about coherence or incoherence. But my initial blow was to ask myself if this could possibly break up some formation I had; could it break up the habit I had of constantly forming things. These assemblages of Jess from the early ’60s just bring things together, and that, of course, is not the same thing as do they break something up. But much more than that I began to understand also that it had something to do with a picture of the universe, while Pound’s picture of the universe was never really very modern, so that he was just misinformed. When you move something from there to there you haven’t, in fact, broken anything up. See we’ve got one where everything in that universe, including particles, are events. And no matter what happens to that universe, events simply don’t have the frame that used to be there that could be broken up . . .” Robert Duncan, “A Conversation about Poetry and Painting”

“He is one of that little company of Artists of the Reassembly closest to my heart in my own work. Out of the discarded and unrecognized, he has brought up into the light of the Imagination, at once playfully and devoutly—and out of the Love of the Beautiful, wrought for the Friends of the Earth—a likeness of Earth’s humble mysteries. The residues of humanity haunt him. He works with materials fallen away from their original uses, worn until their old useful bodies have fallen away and an other patina alone remains. Or, at times, his angel will lift immediate some element from the context of this world, out of a mere costliness of appearance, the Truth of what we overlooked we now see, into the Romance of Old Survivals. This Renaissance or Recycling of Riches thrives upon the threadbare and remnant. And with all of the fallen world this Angel holds conversation . . .” Robert Duncan, c. 1973, out of “Of George Herms, His Hermes, and His Hermetic Art” (A Selected Prose)

. . . Cloud fragments torn loose from the solid sheen of the moon.

      The electric lamp in the isinglass casing. The painted shadow on the glare of the plate. The like lightness of the plate when lifted. All these things left in the design of the maze.

      Slowly the ear turns in time round to the sound it is listening for. The coil of thickness let fall from the table. But here there is no floor to the melody. In the broken plate arcs of higher sympathies cross actual tones and erect in the lonely herm the musician sees a window.

      So that the dark itself persists in the window like a lamp I said. A depresst key that sounds in the piano. And the sun returning to day returns in the old way he has always returned . . .
Out of Robert Duncan’s “Structure of Rime XXI”—“(for Louise & George Herms)”

“. . . the very act of writing a novel is selection . . . I think I recall coming on ‘inherent vice’ as an accepted term for unprepared canvases & chemically unsympathetic paints but don’t know where. Talitha cumi, Mark 5:41 (damsel, arise). Mary B Eddy probably has the error of matter someplace in Science & Health. The K Mansfield quote I think was in a review she wrote of a book by E M Forster, may be in her Notebooks. Maní, Sp. for peanut (chorus of The Peanut Vendor). Bishop Whutley is Whately (wrote Christian Evidences) but I don’t recall the reference. Those are the easy & immediate . . .” William Gaddis, in a 7 January 1976 letter, replying to The Recognitions queries by Robert Minkoff. (Gaddis: “I haven't the sort of detailed recall for sources you assume . . . Undoubtedly there is material here in boxes of discarded notes . . . but if I tried to go through them now for your queries I would be doing nothing else; the more cogent point though is that the alertness goes on during the writing & when the book’s done I’m pretty much finished with it, it becomes its own argument open to any attack or interpretation & whether you feel it’s ‘symbolically unified’ interests you a great deal more than it does me . . .”)

“. . . Herms used to go to junkyards, so he was rescuing what’s thrown away. He wasn’t recycling, by the way, he was rescuing. [Marcel] Duchamp had something to do with that with his objet trouvé. Duchamp never thought he was rescuing that object; he thought he was finding a form. Duchamp’s great at finding forms outside the frame that’s given to art. But it’s cutting both ways, you see, since besides making proposition “A,” the Dada proposition, that he’s going to do something to art that would be intolerable to it, he’s also meanwhile added an art object to it. We were amused when the Surrealists gave their first show in Paris after the war; Man Ray’s Object to Be Destroyed was shown. It had been in the Museum of Modern Art for years in some sanctified corner. Bring it out and what happens? Some literal French student destroys it. Man Ray was at the opening and he wrings his hands and says, “You’re destroying a work of art.” It’s called an Object to Be Destroyed!” Robert Duncan, “A Conversation about Poetry and Painting”

George Herms, “The Librarian,” 1960

George Herms, “Harness,” 1979

George Herms, “May 41,” 1996

George Herms, “Philip Lamantia,” 1999

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Notebook (Barrett Watten, Charles Olson, &c.)

Charles Olson, c. 1969
(Photograph by Gerard Malanga)

Dilatory, and aimlessly looking for something (I forget now what) some weeks back, I found this odd squib by Barrett Watten—and retrieved it—out of the “Contributors’ Index” appended to the Anne Waldman-edited Out of This World: An Anthology of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project 1966-1991 (1991):
      Thinking back on The Poetry Project, I am reminded of an absurdist question posed by Gerard Malanga to Charles Olson in The Paris Review: “A school is a place where one can learn something. Can a school lose by giving away its knowledge?” From my first involvement with it in about 1972, The Poetry Project seemed a place where a school of poetry—the New York School—was physically embodied in a group of writers who felt free to develop in the confidence of their mutual (and contending) assumptions, and I certainly learned something from that. Its “effect on my writing career” came directly from the social confidence of that school, its urban directness and aesthetic autonomy, which I consider to be unique in American literature. Yet at the same time its literary moment seemed fragile, and in “giving away its knowledge” it did not seem able to reconstitute itself as an unambiguous cultural fact as the seventies turned into the eighties. Perhaps it could have been otherwise; rather than a romance of beginnings that turned into a looking backward to sources in the Beats—as, say, Ted Berrigan’s interpretation of his work veered from the terrorist implications of cut-up to the recuperative ones of autobiography—there might have been more of an opening, for instance, to issues in other arts and modes of thought, to a wider intellectual life. This may be more of a problem for poetry in general than for The Poetry Project, so I would say that the question of a school changing as it gives itself up in the course of its development (and I can think of other schools) has led me to a desire for a literature less insular in its relation to everything else! But for an anecdote, how about this: the first thing I did when I got to the East Coast, as a student at MIT in 1965, was to go straight to the church, where Lee Crabtree offered me a swig of the crême de menthe he was drinking while playing piano for the Fugs, and I’m sure that changed my life.
The Crabtree anecdote, veering between modes—one trucklingly earnest and starry-eyed, the other maybe a little mocking (how read “I’m sure that changed my life”?) redeems little of the statement’s anxiety about history and control betrayed by that curiously fraught—no longer, apparently, “absurdist”—idea, that “in ‘giving away its knowledge’ it did not seem able to reconstitute itself as an unambiguous cultural fact.” What, pray tell, is an “unambiguous cultural fact”? An institution? What a curious thing to bereave. Unless, of course, one is determined to become one oneself. (See The Grand Piano.) To bemoan the fragility of a literary “moment” is to deny outright the ways of literary change, the lingo (and all its “current” artefacts) itself an unmoored proviso, a temporal git. In the context of the Paris Review interview whence Watten cobs the Malanga line, an increasingly prickly and insulting Charles Olson makes it utterly clear how little he cottons to “schools”:
INTERVIEWER: What constitutes a school of poetry?

OLSON: Total change, like the man said; one doesn’t look like boopeedeboop—of course. Carry on, destroy film, take another giant step backwards. Málaga. Take one step backwards. Now, ask me some decent questions.*

INTERVIEWER: Is the function of a literary—

OLSON: That sounds dirty as hell. Maybe we can take that to the Supreme Court. Yeah, I heard you. Continue without repeating it.

INTERVIEWER: Is the function of a—

OLSON: He’s already conditioned. It’s like a reflex. Atlantis will arise again. Go ahead. God’s with this boy.

INTERVIEWER: Is the function of a literary movement primarily to secure publication of the poets connected with that movement or doesn’t a literary movement or school present a different function or advantage?

OLSON: That’s a dumb sort of block historical question, if I may say so, and typical sort of a Columbia twentieth-century question.

INTERVIEWER: A school is a place where one can learn something. Can a school lose by giving away its knowledge?

OLSON: Oh boy, that’s beautiful. That’s a lovely question. It’s really such a lovely question. Jesus God. I see it. Right through the solar plexus as the pantheon of Black Mountain pharaoh of the exile . . . We all went on to the other fields, other Bull Runs. It’s a marvelous question, though.**

[. . .]

INTERVIEWER: Is a school of poetry necessary in order to gain attention for a group of poets’ work or is it a handicap?

OLSON: I don’t think it’s relevant.

INTERVIEWER: I’m talking about schools of poetry in terms of such as the so-called New York school of poetry, if you’ll pardon the expression.

OLSON: All right, so name them. Poets have no reason to be in the marvelous ITT thing or Inter-World Aviation.***
Upshot of the New York School’s highly admired “social confidence” and “urban directness”: Watten’s anxious and maladroit (“He becomes you, as ‘retrograde hero “having nothing to say”’ can’t tell what ‘it’ is . . .”) piece in the anthology. Called “Statistics,” with a machine-made aura to it (and a particular English department smell—“Circumstances of this writing assume . . .”), it begins—
There is no language but “reconstructed” imaged parentheses back into person “emphasizing constant” explanation “the current to run both ways.” The ocean he sees when as “sour frowns of the ancients’ ‘signifier’” that person jumps in. We are at liberty “to take ‘the’ out of ‘us’,” to have selves “not here” in the machinery of dramatic monologue to “smash, interrupt.”
—and ends—
Disregarding if “citizens worth not one cent” listening can’t speak for us “circuits not all there” themselves, he “whatever may be ‘wanted’” loves to talk. “Let me in” pushed between “to have intelligibility” hopeless repetition “which takes you away.”
* One reads a wholly different interview in the Ralph Maud-edited Muthologos: Lectures and Interviews (2010). There, Olson’s reply reads:
Double change. Like the man said: “What does not” is the new boobeclebobedeboobecleboo. I mean, not even that, like. Of course, like, of course, of course, of course. Suddenly I break through the curtains and say, “Of course, of course, that’s the point, of course it is. It is, yes, indeed, yes, that’s the whole point.” [LAUGHTER] Carry on. Destroy films. Take another giant step backward. [LAUGHS] Malaga. Malaga, that’s it. Malaga. Gerard de Malaga. Take a right step backwards. Now ask me some decent questions.
“What does not” is a reference to the opening line of Olson’s poem “The Kingfishers”: “What does not change / is the will to change . . .”

** According to the Muthologos transcript, Olson actually makes three replies to the (repeated) question, the initial two answers being elided by the Paris Review. One:
Oh boy, that’s beautiful. That’s a lovely question. Read it again, ’cos it’s really such a lovely question. It’s like a koan; it’s a pure koan.
Right. Jesus, god. I feel—if you don’t mind, you stabs me right through the solar plexus. [LAUGHS] As the pantheon of Black Mountain or the Pharaoh of the exile, I say, like, that was the whole conundrum wasn’t it? So why did I do it to ’em? Why would anybody do it? We all went on to other fields, other Bull Runs, on the insight I had. It’s a marvelous question, though, something like Suzuki or something: do you stick your sword in your belly or do you, like, use the top side of your head? I mean, it’s a marvelous question.
Three (affirming Gerrit Lansing’s interjected “Post-exile”):
It is. And it’s very exciting. In fact, it’s the most exciting question I think really you’ve asked tonight, because it raises that whole sort of—no longer a dilemma at all, may I say? No longer absolutely that bullshit, but just an absolute . . . Wow, that’s a beautiful question, like it’s tck-tck-tck. O.K. Do it again, it’s so nice really; but I mean really it’s like a song, like when I put the two quarters in your hand, it’s the same, just these two, and bejesus if she ain’t eleven, if I’m not mistaken, yeah? Nine ten eleven here, old P.R., P.R., no longer longer P.O., nor P.A. either.
Tedium of the self-proclaimed and -satisfied “Pharaoh.”

*** In Muthologos:
All right, so name ’em, and to—I don’t think so, I think it’s an error of peinture. Poet have no reason to be in a quoroth. [Maud suggests “quoroth” is “a neologism based on ‘quorum.’”] If they do, it’s some marvelous sort of ITT thing or interworld aviation. I mean, it’s a very great difference between the speed question of music and poetry as against that fucking goddamn—and don’t you think I don’t love it, but I suppose, like Bill Williams, I wish I’d been a painter, I wish I could have painted or something. But it doesn’t matter, fuck it. It’s bullshit, it’s not interesting. I mean, sculpture, like that dumb thing, this the Civil War veterans, this is gray in the light . . . uh-ru-de-uh.
Reading the Muthologos transcript against the Paris Review interview, I wonder which of Watten’s seemingly opposed figures to apply to each—“the terrorist implications of cut-up” or “the recuperative ones of autobiography.”

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Letters of William Gaddis (Stray Notes)

William Gaddis, 1922-1998

Of The Letters of William Gaddis. Out of a 4 May 1951 letter to painter John Napper, written aboard the Norwegian boat the Nyhaug, during Gaddis’s return voyage to the States after two and a half years in Europe:
(And on the deck of the drumming liner Watching the furrow that widens behind you You shall not think ‘the past is finished’ Or ‘the future is before us’) one recovers slowly and privately the shell of empty laughter, laughter which recalls nothing and words and gestures without past or future, except insomuch as they exist in the minds of those on the dock, on the pierhead, waiting for the recognition which they feel implicit in the circumstances, —one recovers this shell, prepares to inhabit it, present it in rooms to those who spend their lives in rooms; prepares experiences, taken however seriously then, we missed the meaning, for expenditure in conversation which dies on the dead smoke exhaled, stagnant, the experience tossed off that easily and the meaning never again questioned . . . so one comes ‘home’.
      No; it is not all that easy, nor so soon done with: what brought us away takes us back; and persists to point us away again: the past is not finished nor the future before us. Though for all that, I dread the day when voyages cease to have their significance for me, when I know with my heart what I know now with Mr Eliot’s mind, that the way up and the way down are one and the same; better cultivate the infinite mind, and preserve the temporal heart, in which voyages still do have directions, fight against the weary sagacity of the seaman to whom directions are simply matters of distance and of days, and ports of climates and cost of entertainment. Never, I hope, to attain to that peak of sophistication where movement across water is simply a matter of adjusting one’s watch, where crossing the Atlantic ocean is as significant as a busride to Battersea.
Such Weltschmerz for a man still two years shy of thirty. The Eliotic rhythms—the opening parenthetical repeats lines out of “The Dry Salvages”—pervasive and unmistakable. “The way up and the way down are one” a rendering of Eliot’s line therein “And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.”* In a fragment of a letter to artist and writer Sheri Martinelli (assigned a date of “[Summer 1953?]”), Gaddis writes of how “the present is every moment reshaping the past, so that any instant is liable to come up with the verdict, I was wrong all the time! or, I was right all along . . .” A line reasserted in The Recognitions (1955): “every instant the past is reshaping itself, it shifts and breaks and changes, and every minute we’re finding, I was right . . . I was wrong, until . . .” In Agapē Agape (2002) Gaddis writes (in a context of “the artist as confidence man” and the “frenzied metaphor of mechanization reaching everywhere, of art without the artist”) of “fading into that bed of shades, those imitations and shadowy images of gossip where there is no present moment but only the next one being devoured in the immense maw of the past, where immortality finds its home at last, where the voice has dwindled to the dry scratch of a grasshopper . . .” A seeming reversal, unsolaced and grim.

In the throes of revising the nearly half a million word manuscript of The Recognitions. Out of a 4 January 1954 letter to Napper:
      By now you may well think that if our correspondence continues I’ll still be writing you in five more decades, that I’m still working hard on the same thing, same damned book, same parade of megalomania, for I still am scrabbling along on the thing you read ch. I of so many years ago at Chantry Mill. Last winter in an empty farmhouse was to be the end: I emerged in May with the woodchucks and a 15-pound manuscript, which dampened Harcourt-Brace’s spirits more than somewhat, but they’ve given money, money, all of it gone now and nothing to show for it but a bowler hat and a fourteen-&-three-quarter pound MS. They think I’m cutting it, but what I seem to be doing is to take out something I thought was amusing 4 years ago, and put in something equally idiotic which I find amusing now. At the moment it’s spread all over the floor, and is quite impressive if only in square feet. But honestly, it’s about over, the whole extravaganza. Another 6 or 8 weeks, they want the thing and I wish they’d take it, I am so tired of it, have entirely lost interest in every bit of it, and being quite assured that I’m never going to make any more money from it, would so happily forget the entire evidence of wasted youth. Such low spirits have persisted for some months now; but I look for a change of some sort when I do get this thing off my hands, and start looking around to see what I’m going to be when I grow up. (And not as the Duke of Gloucester had it, —Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?)
Editor Stephen Moore reports that Gaddis likely found the anecdote of the Duke of Gloucester’s purported remark to historian Edward Gibbon in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1949), a book Gaddis owned (and frequently used). A 1974 number (13 / 14) of Antæus printed a section of Gaddis’s novel J R (1975) under the title: “Untitled Fragment from Another Damned, Thick, Square Book.”
* “The Dry Salvages” (1941) continues:
You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,
That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.
When the train starts, and the passengers are settled
To fruit, periodicals and business letters
(And those who saw them off have left the platform)
Their faces relax from grief into relief,
To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.
Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you . . .
Is William Carlos Williams’s “The Descent”—beginning “The descent beckons / as the ascent beckoned. / Memory is a kind / of accomplishment, / a sort of renewal / even / an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places / inhabited by hordes / heretofore unrealized, / of new kinds— / since their movements / are toward new objectives / (even though formerly they were abandoned) . . .”—a reply to Eliot’s lines?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Notebook (Caroline Knox, William Gaddis, &c.)

William Gaddis, c. 1983
Sopping in the library. Saw a break in the morning’s downpour and bicycled out into it, zippered into my somewhat mediocre (and dated) gear. Only to be caught in a furious pluvial onslaught, raindrops piercing the tender and insufficient yellow “repellant.” So, wet, nigh amniotically so. Nothing for it: the plain air—neither “fustian” nor “maudlin” (a variant of “Magdalene” deriving out of Mary of Magdala’s copious weeping?) in itself, though one likes to believe it—the air—liable to cotton to one’s own particular disaster—is working with dignified speed to dry the “very Garb and outward Dress of a contrite Heart . . .” Caroline Knox, out of “Where” (Flemish, 2013):
. . . Rustic solutions abound, but so do cavalier judgments.
The Homestead Act should not be confused with the Volstead Act.
Using the language (exclusively) of an arcane discipline to describe life as tolerable
bores everyone, at all times, and eventually reveals a latent maudlin.

Sensible people close with astringent concern
deeply immured in which is a kind of daring
exemplified by women who put raspberries in their hats
(as it were migrants, which they are) not bothering what people will think.
I love the hint of sass in the finicky precision of that.

Still fervently reading The Letters of William Gaddis. Other proposed titles for The Recognitions (1955): “Vigils of the Dead and / or The Origin of Design.” Gaddis, out of a 28 November 1950 letter to mother Edith Gaddis:
      Lava from Mt Etna, I understand, is flowing at the rate of 120 feet a minute; the United States Atlantic seaboard under 26 feet of water; and the Belgian coast under the heaviest fog in its history. Aside from these prodigies of nature—including a wind of 120 miles an hour on top of Mt Washington in New Hampshire (though what anyone is doing up there I haven’t figured out)—we have such ingenuous contributions of human origin as the Long Island Railroad, and the little girl with the sunflower growing in her lungs. Fortunately the Pope has proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption, so I suppose there’s really nothing to worry about. (They say that the bubonic plague has re-appeared in north-Africa.)
      In times like these, a small person returns to his own pitifully limited means of accomplishing disaster; and the best one can accomplish is lampshades of human skin, or soap made of human bones. Recalling the crucifix at Burgos (in the north of Spain), where for many centuries it was believed that the Figure was made of human skin, though eventually someone proved it to be buffalo hide. There was also, somewhere in the annals of the entertainment world, a mermaid presented as sideshows fashioned for the upper half of a monkey and the lower end of a codfish. Bringing us back to the world of Freddie’s Football Dogs, and the play The Deserter (presented in London in the late 19th century) entirely acted by animals.
      Material, one might say, for a novel.
Blackly humorous skepticism put up against a kind of wonder at the sheer variety of human foible. Editor Steven Moore’s excellent notes routinely point back into Gaddis’s novels. So, in The Recognitions one finds report of Reverend Gwyon in Spain amongst “people and relics, motion and collapse, the accumulation of time in walls” and of “that frantic Gothic demonstration at Burgos where Christ shown firmly nailed was once said to be fashioned from a stuffed human skin, but since had been passed as buffalo hide, a scarcer commodity, reminiscent, in his humor, of the mermaid composed from a monkey and a codfish. He collected things, each of a holy intention in isolation, but pagan in the variety of his choice.” And, some seven hundred pages along in the book, in Agnes Deigh’s careering and incantatory letter to Dr. Weisgall, one finds:
You would be surprised how important bars are to people who don’t read books, doctor. Sometimes I could weep, and other times I do. I remember The Deserter, a drama acted by dogs and a monkey at Sadlers Wells in 1785, and I could weep. I remember Freddie’s Football Dogs, and I could weep. I remember the round of names, names taken from popular books for naming of children, and taken back from them grown-up for books which no one reads, and I could weep. Somewhere in Africa I believe they made a mermaid from a monkey and a codfish, I have seen its photograph.
Too, in the Letters, Gaddis’s whimsical lyric outbursts tempered by a self-deprecating humor, and larded with quotes and mash-ups of quotes. In Paris, a 9 July 1949 letter to Edith Gaddis:
      I have just dropped two suitcase keys out of my 7th-storey hotel window; and that trifle may go to illustrate pretty much how things have been going for the last weeks.
      Many enough competences have attacked the sempiternal picture of ingrate children, sons and lovers. And here the son, moored high among a floating campanella, faëry bells that pass unattached, tangled among treetops, bleeding their sounds in drops over the green, through the light, indifferent calling signalling only the mariner who reasons to fear the shoals, we others reach out, call back answerless, until there and sudden is the white water and we know what they knew— Seated, as I say, on a level of treetops in an anonymous section of Paris, adding the days I have written you nothing (where the dark of the days and the hours reigned in glowing incautious confusion)
(new ribbon)
      (“and that one”, said an old engineer, “has bananas in his head . . .”)
History being a temporal substitute for creation, I suppose we may best recline to chronology, to rely like the weak on arrangement, on the varicose strands of time. Conveniently with each day numbered, respectfully submitting to a larger number that Pope Gregory, forced to temporal attentions, restricted as a year, thinking perhaps that any christian concept of eternity merited science’s corresponding resolution to infinity, that was numbers. Or Evangeline, retching in the forest primeval —life is very long.
      But no. Better, —It was roses, roses all the way, and never a sprig of yew . . . And better to go backwards; starting at last night.
Thence, a story of seeing a “ballet at the Paris Opera”—“because we need spectacles, because the only ones who afford the grand gesture today usually end up in the prison or the asylum, so well-conducted is our sterility, so well-rewarded our antisepsis . . .” veering off into some rather Eliotic-sounding lines out of Robert Browning’s “A Toccata of Galuppi’s” (1855):
(Well, and it was graceful of them, they’d break talk off and afford,
(She to touch her mask’s black velvet, he to finger at his sword,
(While you sat and played tocattas, stately at the clavichord . . .)
Gaddis: “Words drop, disappear, or shamefully retreat from our vocabularies.” And, at the letter’s end, a wonderful defense of such writerly hijinks:
. . . wiseness in what was called foolish expenditure becomes evident as the corners of the pattern begin to suggest themselves; that reason reached through unreason; and honesty through pretension.
to ask you to indulge the fore-going miasma of metaphor, the dearth of clean lines, the plethora of pretension; to find underneath what I try vainly to dig down to . . .