Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Stray Notes (Patrick O’Brian, Thomas Pynchon, &c.)

Patrick O’Brian, 1914-2000

Reading, of late, with something akin to preternatural joy and astonishment, the “Yarn-Spinner” Patrick O’Brian. The epithet is Pynchon’s, out of Mason & Dixon (1997):
      “Cheerly. Cheerly, then, Lads. . . .”
      “Excuse me, Captain, problem with the Euphroes again.”
      “Get O’Brian up here, then, if it’s about Euphroes, he’s the one to see.”
      “Hey t’en, Pat. Scribblin’ again, are ye? More Sea Stories?” Not only does O’Brian know all there is to know and more ’pon the Topick of Euphroes, and Rigging even more obscure,—he’s also acknowledg’d as the best Yarn-Spinner in all the Fleets. “Euphroe Detail again.”
      They are in the southern Latitudes at last, hence the need for Awnings . . .
I love it. Anachronistickal kudos by a tar. Slipped into another yarn’s interstices. (Euphroe, Uphroe, Uvrou: out of the Dutch juffrouw, also juffer dead-eye, literally, “maiden.” Crowfeet dead-eyes. “Uphroe, an oblong block made of ash . . . used to suspend the awnings.”)

Out of O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970):
      On his knees, and with his chin level with the top of the table, Stephen watched the male mantis step cautiously towards the female mantis. She was a fine strapping green specimen, and she stood upright on her four back legs, her front pair dangling devoutly; from time to time a tremor caused her heavy body to oscillate over the thin suspending limbs, and each time the brown male shot back. He advanced lengthways, with his body parallel to the table-top, his long, toothed, predatory front legs stretching out tentatively and his antennae trained forwards: even in this strong light Stephen could see the curious inner glow of his big oval eyes.
      The female deliberately turned her head through forty-five degrees, as though looking at him. ‘Is this recognition?’ asked Stephen, raising his magnifying glass to detect some possible movement in her feelers. ‘Consent?’
      The brown male certainly thought it was, and in three strides he was upon her; his legs gripped her wing-covers; his antennae found hers and began to stroke them. Apart from a vibratory, well-sprung quiver at the additional weight, she made no apparent response, no resistance; and in a little while the strong orthopterous copulation began. Stephen set his watch and noted down the time in a book, open upon the floor.
      Minutes passed. The male shifted his hold a little. The female moved her triangular head, pivoting it slightly from left to right. Through his glass Stephen could see her sideways jaws open and close; then there was a blur of movements so rapid that for all his care and extreme attention he could not follow them, and the male’s head was off, clamped there, a detached lemon, under the crook of her green praying arms. She bit into it, and the eye’s glow went out; on her back the headless male continued to copulate rather more strongly than before, all his inhibitions having been removed. ‘Ah,’ said Stephen with intense satisfaction, and noted down the time again.
      Ten minutes later the female took off three pieces of her mate’s long thorax, above the upper coxal joint, and ate them with every appearance of appetite, dropping crumbs of chitinous shell in front of her. The male copulated on, still firmly anchored by his back legs.
Stephen Maturin, amateur naturalist (and ’cellist), surgeon aboard the Sophie. “Strong orthopterous copulation”* is simply a delight, and so, too, “a detached lemon.” The whole rather unparalleled—funny, precise, euphonious. One thinks of Jean-Henri Fabre’s numerous Souvenirs entomologiques and other writings about insects. Fabre, translated by Bernard Miall, out of Social Life in the Insect World (1911):
      We are near the end of August. The male Mantis, a slender and elegant lover, judges the time to be propitious. He makes eyes at his powerful companion; he turns his head towards her; he bows his neck and raises his thorax. His little pointed face almost seems to wear an expression. For a long time he stands thus motionless, in contemplation of the desired one. The latter, as though indifferent, does not stir. Yet the lover has seized upon a sign of consent: a sign of which I do not know the secret. He approaches: suddenly he erects his wings, which are shaken with a convulsive tremor.
      This is his declaration. He throws himself timidly on the back of his corpulent companion; he clings to her desperately, and steadies himself. The prelude to the embrace is generally lengthy, and the embrace will sometimes last for five or six hours.
      Nothing worthy of notice occurs during this time. Finally the two separate, but they are soon to be made one flesh in a much more intimate fashion. If the poor lover is loved by his mistress as the giver of fertility, she also loves him as the choicest of game. During the day, or at latest on the morrow, he is seized by his companion, who first gnaws through the back of his neck, according to use and wont, and then methodically devours him, mouthful by mouthful, leaving only the wings. Here we have no case of jealousy, but simply a depraved taste.
And: “I once surprised a male, apparently in the performance of his vital functions, holding the female tightly embraced—but he had no head, no neck, scarcely any thorax! The female, her head turned over her shoulder, was peacefully browsing on the remains of her lover! And the masculine remnant, firmly anchored, continued its duty!” Source material for O’Brian? Because of the way “consent” seemingly makes a pivot-point in both Fabre and O’Brian, I reckon so.
* I note a little sadly that in the endless lumping and splitting continuum of systematics, mantises no longer belong to the order Orthoptera, now being classified amongst the Dictyoptera.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Stray Notes (Cy Twombly, John Berger, &c.)

Cy Twombly, 1928-2011

Cy Twombly, out of David Sylvester’s Interviews with American Artists (2001):
. . . It’s a sort of infantile thing, painting. Paint in a sense is a certain infantile thing. I mean in the handling. I start out using a brush but then I can’t take the time because the idea doesn’t correspond, it gets stuck when the brush goes out of paint in a certain length of time. So I have to go back and by then I might have lost the rest of it. So I take my hand and I do it. Or I have those wonderful things that came in later: paintsticks. Because the pencil also breaks if the canvas is too rough. So I had to find things that I could use, like my hands or the paintsticks. I can carry through the impetus till it stops. It’s continual. . . . I use earth things and certain human things as symbols for earth—like it might be excrement but it’s earth. And I did those charts, big palettes . . . two or three paintings with palettes and all of the colours—pink, flesh, brown, red for blood. And I think with most painters you can think and it can change very fast, the impetus of what something is. It’s instinctive in a certain kind of painting, not as if you were painting an object or special things, but it’s like coming through the nervous system. It’s like a nervous system. It’s not described, it’s happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning. It’s like I’m experiencing something frightening, I’m experiencing the thing and I have to be at that state because I’m also going.
To be ambuscaded by like seizures, to accede to the lingo’s grunt-intelligibility, jouissance, palaver and blab. To be led across the language-scape by the ineradicable rut of merely going. Writing unrestrained by anything beyond its own flaunted and peccable music. (O’Hara: “You just go on your nerve.”) Twombly: “I’m a painter and my whole balance is not having to think about things. So all I think about is painting. It’s the instinct for the placement where all that happens. I don’t have to think about it. . . . So I don’t think of composition . . .”

John Berger, out of “Post-Scriptum,” a note found in Audible Silence: Cy Twombly at Daros (2002):
      It has been said that Cy Twombly’s paintings resemble writing, or are a kind of écriture. Certain critics have seen parallels between his canvases and wall graffiti. This makes sense. In my experience, however, his paintings refer to more than all the walls I pass in cities and gaze at, or the walls on which I too once scrawled names and drew diagrams; his paintings, as I see them, touch upon something fundamental to a writer’s relationship with her or his language.
      A writer continually struggles for clarity against the language he’s using or, more accurately, against the common usage of that language. He doesn’t see language with the readability and clarity of something printed out. He sees it, rather, as a terrain full of illegibilities, hidden paths, impasses, surprises, and obscurities. Its map is not a dictionary but the whole of literature and perhaps everything ever said. Its obscurities, its lost senses, its self-effacements come about for many reasons—because of the way words modify each other, write themselves over each other, cancel one another out, because the unsaid always counts for as much, or more, than the said, and because language can never cover what it signifies. Language is always an abbreviation.
      It was Proust who once remarked that all true poetry consists of words written in a foreign language. Every one of us is born with a mother tongue. Yet poetry is motherless.
      I’ll try to make what I’m saying simpler. From time to time I exchange letters and drawings with a Spanish friend. I do not (unhappily) speak Spanish, I know a few words, and I can use a dictionary. Often in the letters I receive there are quotations in Spanish from poets—Borges, Juarroz, Neruda, Lorca. And I reply with other quotations of poems in Spanish, which I have sought out. The letters are hand-written and, as I carefully trace the letters of strange words in what is to me a foreign tongue, I have the sense, as at no other time, of walking in the furrows of a poem, across the terrain of poetry.
      Cy Twombly’s paintings are for me landscapes of this foreign and yet familiar terrain. Some of them appear to be laid out under a blinding noon sun, others have been found by touch at night. In neither case can any dictionary of words be referred to, for the light does not allow it. . . .
What Proust said (out of “Notes on Literature and Criticism” found in Against Sainte-Beuve—being a gathering of “comments scattered through Proust’s notebooks”):
      Beautiful books are written in a sort of foreign language. Beneath each word each one of us puts his own meaning or at least his own image, which is often a misinterpretation. But in beautiful books all our misinterpretations are beautiful.
Pertinently, Proust notes too: “the great French writers do not know much French.”

Cy Twombly, “Ferragosto II,” 1961

Cy Twombly, “Untitled (Bolsena),” 1969

Cy Twombly, “Untitled,” 1968/1971

Cy Twombly, “Untitled (A Painting in 3 Parts),” 1992

Cy Twombly, “Lepanto V,” 2001

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Roy Fisher’s An Easily Bewildered Child: Occasional Prose 1963-2013

Roy Fisher
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Reading Roy Fisher’s entirely captivating (and seemingly effortless) prose. Collected in the Peter Robinson-edited An Easily Bewildered Child: Occasional Prose 1963-2013 (Shearsman, 2014). Fisher’s wry and slightly diffident voice there in that terrific opening line (out of a 2012 piece called “Meanwhile”): “An easily bewildered child, I nevertheless had no problem in hanging on to the idea that sewn like a lining inside the customary world there was another with tones and imperatives of its own.” The piece includes a fine appreciation of Gael Turnbull, who included Fisher’s work in a British number of Cid Corman’s Origin (and whose Migrant Press published Fisher’s first pamphlet, the 1961 City):
He opened things up and licensed me to go on writing. Trying to characterize the unique nature of his presence in the poetry scene I’m reminded of the stratified social system of Imperial Japan, where the rigid levels of aristocracy and peasantry held sandwiched between them the Floating World of administrators, artists and the like who had fewer obligations and more freedom. Having virtually no contact with the poetry establishment (particularly in England, though America and eventually his native Scotland found him easier to value) and instinctively staying clear of the activities of self-congratulatory but incurious amateurism, he could roam free in the floating world of little magazines and quixotic publications. He had a nose for what he considered honest work and had no preconceptions about where to go looking for it. He distrusted anything smooth, slick or subsidised: his predilection for issuing tiny editions, mostly of his own work, in booklets hand-sewn with covers of wallpaper offcuts, the texts on the poorest quality paper and made with obsolete basic technology, was proverbial.
In the longer “Antebiography” Fisher details the consequences of being included in the British Origin number (“I was no Black Mountain poet; I was just another muffled English provincial eccentric. But I was certainly well outside the neat, socially orientated orthodox poetic, which had neither appeal nor meaning for me. I couldn’t even mimic it . . .”) and meeting Turnbull in 1956, who acquaints him with the work of the burgeoning New American Poetry:
      I went home and tackled my writing from a new direction. I had already on occasion used chance operations to begin poems I didn’t think important; now I used such methods extensively—usually short phrases picked at random . . . The main effect of the method was to get me out of my own way. This was very necessary. I’d grown up with no trace of the compact self which most other people seemed to have; instead I had a diffused zone in which ad hoc selves would be generated for temporary purposes, and then dissolve again. Establishing a usable, consistent self was later to prove a lengthy business, like growing a windbreak. The self I’d tried in those days to fix as a writing persona was just a kind of self-important bruise, a posture. It got in the way, and didn’t ring true. Once rid of it, though, I could get at observations, memories, earlier selves, lost feelings, casual things—reality, in short—and my clotted language cleared like a cloudy liquid left to settle.
Brilliance in the offhand (and funny) metaphors: “like growing a windbreak.” The too-earnest (whatever’s too weighty, grave, or momentous) thus kept at bay, relegating the self and its endless tutorials to something akin to a home-improvement project. Pertinent, too, some lines out of Fisher’s “Poet on Writing” (originally written for the 1992 Denise Riley-edited Poets on Writing: Britain, 1970-1991):
      I’m either writing—physically making a creature of blackish marks on whitish paper—or I’m not. At such times I’m willing to admit that I’m a poet, but at others the persona doesn’t exist. It’s almost unthinkable for me to experience the arrival of what I recognise as the movement or form of a poem simply as a mental or a vocal thing. I have first to be setting words down and shifting them about in my inhibited, brain-wrenching, left-handed script. It may well be that when I write I use, as a formal constraint, the residue of the early difficulty I had over learning to hold a pen and move it across the paper in an unnatural direction. I’m a glib and garrulous talker, given to branching sentences that forget their own beginnings; but in order to get me to write them down, word-patterns have to have at least a claim on permanency. And it’s in the time of their being turned into marks that they make themselves audible to me: then I hear the chime of a phrase back and forth along its length. The muttering voice—which isn’t quite mine—in my head speaks them, and sometimes I’ll sound them aloud, Always, before passing a version as final.
I don’t see a poem of mine as a setting for myself as a character, a composition which can in some sense contain me; instead it’s something found and formed within my boundaries and then, maybe, projected out into the language-exchange to try its luck. This view drastically affects the way I compose. For while my relations with other people are—or so they seem to me—extremely simple for the most part, and certainly not likely to generate much in the way of paperwork, my relations with my own inner life are complex, shifting, and bulky, and over several decades they've produced a great heap of notebooks and journals. Although this mass of observations, sensations and introspections is inchoate, and undeveloped except by movements of its own tides, I’ve come to think of it, rather than the poems, as my work, my central occupation. It’s supremely useless to anyone but me. It doesn’t progress towards becoming a system. It gives an air of fitful authority, as if somebody had dropped the contents of the I Ching and then stuffed them back together haphazardly. Indeed, I use it as a disorderly private oracle. I can move about in it, guided by its skeins of metaphors, elliptical jargon and obsessively-acquired images, and most of the recurrent tones and images of my finished poems have first identified themselves to me by the way they feature insistently in the notebooks.
Something entirely refreshing about Fisher’s casual unconcern with all the (rather meretricious, generally) trappings of the poet beyond that “making a creature of blackish marks on whitish paper.” Some plausibly rare integrity at work. An honorable focus, no allegiance beyond the word. Fisher’s means to compose: “I quieten language down to zero: a blank page and a silence in the head. Then when the words start to come I make the text with a very simple forward progression, aiming to bring each section to a finished state as I go. Not a lapidary technique, allowing for later substitutions; more like fresco painting, where images quickly become fixed and unalterable. As the work proceeds, every new line or patch has its nature guided by the whole of what’s gone before, and, preferably by no other factors.” Compare with these lines out of Fisher’s “Handsworth Liberties”—out of The Thing About Joe Sullivan (1978): “At the end of the familiar, / throwing away the end / of the first energy, regardless; / nothing for getting home with— // if there’s more / it rises from under the first / step into the strange / and under the next and goes on / lifting up all the way; // nothing has a history. The most / gnarled things are all new, // mercurial tongues / dart in at the mouth, / in at the ears . . .”

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pound and Music (Stray Notes)

Ezra Pound, 1885-1972

Out, Saturday morning, under irregular sun, to what the county maps call Watkins Lake, a lake bisected (or pierced) by a narrow dirt road: locals call it Thorn Lake. Cold—mid-twenties—with a skiff of snow. Waterfowl (“Water foules haue bytwene theyr toes and clawes as it were a skynne . . .”): hooded mergansers, gadwalls, canvasbacks, and hundreds of ruddy ducks, tails aslant. The usual vociferous Canada geese. Four snow geese tending to the outskirts. Coots un peu partout. Driving out, stopped at the farm pond off Schneider Road: a single American kestrel doing its manœuvres washed by sunlight the color of turpentine. Rust and slate, ineffable rust and slate. Tromped the Leonard Preserve through the increasingly cloud-blotted day: a conniption of eastern bluebirds, a solitary red-headed woodpecker, a broken file of deer moving like spooks through the snow-scrimmed red pines.

Bumping around Pound again, Pound the inexhaustible. Something out of “Mr Housman at Little Bethel,” c. 1934:
I am unqualified to speak of exalted sentiment, but I should say no idea worth carrying in the mind from one year’s end to another, and no story really good enough to make me at least want to tell it, but chafes at the flatness of prose, but suffers from inadequate statement, but leaves me feeling it is but half said, or said in abstraction, defined in terms so elastic that any god’s ape can stretch its definition to meet his own squalor or to fit his own imbecility, until it be conjoined with music, or at least given rhythmic definition even though one do not arrive at defining its tonal articulation.
“Conjoined with music.” Meaning caught by the throat. Verbiage bit into rhythmic chunks, to sap the usual slurry mayhem, to make distinct a structure. (Pound, reviewing the pianist Arthur Rubinstein in 1920, notes approvingly: “a solidity of rhythm, the whole like a set of taut steel cables whirling, seizing and holding the auditor; a barbaric noise, splendidly structural . . .”) Or think of Pound’s line in “Music and Brains” (1936): “I have heard Yeats read poems that had no rhythm of their own, poems that had no more metric force and validity than you can find in a mashed potato, and by imposing a rhythm of his own on the formless verbiage, give it a transient and passing life.” Out of the 1917 note “Vers Libre and Arnold Dolmetsch”:
      Poetry is a composition of words set to music. Most other definitions of it are indefensible, or metaphysical. The proportion or quality of the music may, and does, vary; but poetry withers and “dries out” when it leaves music, or at least an imagined music, too far behind it. . . .
      Poets who are not interested in music are, or become, bad poets. I would almost say that poets should never be too long out of touch with musicians. Poets who will not study music are defective. I do not mean that they need become virtuosi, or that they need necessarily undergo the musical curriculum of their time. It is perhaps their value that they can be a little refractory and heretical, for all arts tend to decline into the stereotype; and at all times the mediocre tend or try, semi-consciously or unconsciously, to obscure the fact that the day's fashion is not the immutable.
Tonic against a gone sedulousness, a former (supposed) diligence of making (now) corrupted. (“A body may be fordoo and corrupted, for hit is i-made of contrarie þinges.”)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Creeley’s Letters

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

Sundry gleanings out of the pages of The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley (2014), the oddly reassuring human rub of the “merely” factual. How Creeley’s Divers Press in Mallorca printed—along with books by “the usual suspects” of Olson, Duncan, Blackburn, &c.—A Handbook of Fancy Pigeons (1954), by H. P. Macklin (“who writes a series of articles in the Am/ Pigeon Journal (who is buying out the edition, for distribution etc) on divers odd & out-of-fashion breeds.”) Noted in a letter to Cid Corman dated “December 24, 1954.” Creeley, of neighbor Robert Graves: “Just now I’m trying to locate a good pair of Homers for Graves—who plans to use them for communication between Deya & Palma—very funny.” In that letter, too, Creeley reports: “We just got a monkey—very lovely little thing, a lady, etc. I’ve always wanted one . . .”

How—to a page of a “July 15, 1952” letter to Charles Olson—Creeley stuck a photograph of “two hands shaping pottery on a wheel.” And thence wrote:
Just saw this photograph. Someday wd be very great to do book, i.e., not to ‘do’ book, but if it happened so, with just such things interspersed without comment.
                                                                                                                                            So that text would have equivalent in visual, i.e., pictures. Both as ‘rest’ for the reader, and pulling out of his sense of content generally, i.e.,—so he gets it everywhere, is present in a multiplicity of things.
                                          Not as ‘illustration’ but as like things. It could be good. I mean, real wide play,—of things like this, bits of cloth, anything that had relevance.
Anticipating W. G. Sebald’s photograph-punctuated prose. Or I think of Susan Howe’s “Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards” in Souls of the Labadie Tract (2007), the blue swatch pictured therein.

How Jack Spicer apparently attempted to join the gang teaching at Black Mountain—Creeley writing (“September 5, 1955”): “under any other circumstances but those which we now face, I’m certain that the college would be very interested in your qualifications as a possible addition to the faculty . . .” Think of Spicer there in the Carolina highlands, with no ocean: “The grand concord of what / does not stoop to definition.”

How earnestly Creeley riffs regarding Charlie Parker’s rhythmic concision and variance. In a “July 19, 1953” letter to Olson, he calls Parker, rather awkwardly, “one of the most substantial users of what time can do in any business.” And tries to apply Parker’s acuity to verse:
That thing of cutting an 1/8th off the quarter, etc., is it, and the precision of such rhythms so got is a) the necessary fine-ness of the intention and b) the greater potential of variation then possible. I.e., what bugs either one of us, in the old biz of closed verse, or any such partitioning of potential forms, etc., is the damn loss of variation effected. Not, to grant them the obvious, that infinite variation within the given isn’t also possible, etc., etc., but that total set is pre-determined. Bird, in any case, first man importantly, call it, to stress the vertical potential of the melodic line, and by vertical I think I mean much of what you have always meant, i.e., that emphasis on the single & total content of any one word or note therein occurring without an overstress on projection-along-a-line, or what they loosely call ‘sequence’, or what you’ve called horizontalism. What I’m trying to say, in any case: that Bird manages single content of the note, call it, in conjunction with total content, and/or its place in the whole structure of the melody, etc., etc. Whereas, say, usual ‘modern song’ goes along, etc., i.e., moves from note to note (and gains our patience or impatience only in same), Bird clears notes one by fucking one, and reasserts a rhythmic structure with each note posited. Myself, I think you go back to Bach before you ever find it done quite so clearly.
The “single & total content of any one word” recalling (again) Olson’s “whatever you have to say, leave / the roots on, let them / dangle / / And the dirt / / Just to make clear / where they come from.” (Knocking briefly around looking for Olson’s “horizontalism” I find, out of a letter postmarked “10 August 1950” to Frances Boldereff: “we are a perpendicular axis of planes which are constantly being intersected by horizontal planes of experience coming in from the past (coming up from the ground—or, like you say, that underground tide) and going out to the future . . . it is at the innumerable points of intersection that images and events spring up which are like tastes in the mouth . . .” Certes, the spatial metaphor of “COMPOSITION BY FIELD”—“no track other than the one the poem under hand declares”—in Olson’s “Projective Verse” is one of unprepossessed horizontality. Odd how Creeley’s evident disdain for “usual ‘modern song’” that “moves from note to note” might be read against Olson’s shout that “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.”)

How Creeley, writing to William Carlos Williams after reviewing the Williams’s Selected Essays (“the goddamn review—it was a messy (my messiness, that is), difficult job”), and quibbling therein about Williams’s writings about “measure” (“the ‘relatively stable foot’ called for in ‘On Measure,’ . . . is, I think, a confusion. To take literally the first of the sentence, ‘The line must be measured to be in measure . . . ,’ is to involve oneself in an obviously vicious circle. No poem was ever written ‘in this direction.’”), quotes Thomas Campion, who claimed “he wrote to no measure”:
                Kinde are her answeres,
                But her performance keeps no day;
Breaks time, as dancers
                From their own Musicke when they stray . . .
And quotes, too, a few lines out of Ben Jonson’s “A Fit of Rime Against Rime”: “Still may Syllabes jarre with time, / Still may reason warre with rime, / Resting never.” So lovely as to occlude the argument.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Stray Notes (Robert Creeley, Hugh Kenner, Frank O’Hara, &c.)

Robert Creeley, 1926-2005
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Prompted by Creeley’s ferocity in reacting to Hugh Kenner’s The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951)—see the “April 18th, 1951” letter addressed to Denise Levertov and Mitchell Goodman in the Selected Letters
Read Kenner’s damn bk/—THAT is horrible. Christly pompous style he’s got: “When the widow of Ernest Fenollosa perceived that the poet of Lustra was ideally fitted to work into articulated forms, etc., etc., etc.” Very hard to even get THRU that one—incidentally, it continues (on the book-page) for five more lines. Ending, “ . . . of penetrating an utterly alien poetic method from which unworn procedures and formulations might be drawn . . . ” O/ utterly!

Fuck that.
—I took a look at the Kenner. Usual Kenneresque fulsome narrativity (recall the masterly opening salvo of The Pound Era, twenty years later: “Toward the evening of a gone world, the light of its last summer pouring into a Chelsea street found and suffused the red waistcoast of Henry James, lord of decorum, en promenade, exposing his Boston niece to the tone of things.” A sentence the impeccable stylist Guy Davenport’d cotton, indubitably, to—indeed, it could well commence a Davenport récit . . .) Here’s Kenner’s opening to the “Cathay” chapter:
      When the widow of Ernest Fenollosa perceived that the poet of Lustra was ideally fitted to work into articulated form the notes and cribs on certain early Chinese poems assembled by her husband, Pound for the first time had the opportunity at once of consolidating his new modes of poetic speech and of penetrating an utterly alien poetic method from which unworn procedures and formulations might be drawn. The importance of Fenollosa essay on the Chinese Written Character needs no emphasis. The technical importance of the Cathay translations, in preparing for the Cantos, probably still deserves a page or two.*
“Probably still deserves a page or two.” Out of the “Christly pompous” and into the incidental, the casual, the off the cuff. Creeley seemingly apt to miss the range of the proceedings. I recall here remarks Frank O’Hara makes—talking with Edward Lucie-Smith in a 1965 interview reprinted in Standing Still and Walking in New York. O’Hara’s talking about the range of new American poetries, and puts the pleasures of a kind of maximalist barrage up against a pointedly countering impetus, that of a paring down, and a need for “control”. O’Hara:
It’s, you know, the sort of tumultuous outpouring of images which then get themselves together into being a poem, somehow. But you do have the excitement of seeing whether you’re really going to get it to be a poem or not. You know, or is it just going to be a . . . But of course with the influence of Levertov and Creeley you have another element which is making control practically the subject matter of the poem. That is your control of language, your control of the experiences and your control of your thought. . . . It is amazing that Creeley puts as many vowels in as Levertov, and the amazing thing is that where they’ve pared down the diction so that the experience presumably will come through as strongly as possible, it’s the experience of their paring it down that comes through more strongly and not the experience that is the subject . . .
And isn’t Creeley’s complaint with Kenner one, finally, of diction? “O/ utterly!”
* In The Pound Era Kenner ties Mary Fenollosa’s choosing of Pound for the “notes and cribs” to Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:
. . . which early in 1913 he had instructed Harriet Monroe to print thus:
The apparition         of these faces         in the crowd:
Petals         on a wet, black bough.
—two lines, five phases of perception. Later typesetters, thinking this queer, have closed up the spaces. There is no indication that he was thinking of Chinese characters when he grouped sensations that way, but he was clearly ready for the gift Mary Fenollosa made him during that year, prompted, it appears, by the command of idiom displayed in that poem and in 11 others of the Contemporania group in the April 1913 Poetry.
The pages of material, Kenner notes, “demanded not an editor but a poet.” “Fenollosa himself had written that ‘the purpose of poetical translation is the poetry, not the verbal definitions in dictionaries.’”

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Stray Notes (Jane Freilicher, Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, &c.)

Jane Freilicher, “John Ashbery,” c. 1954

Merely to gather a few things pulled out of readings (“join’d / In soft Assemblage”). All seemingly bucking the astringency of the prepossessed, the way “intent” is a baffle, a check and discomfiture. There’s Jane Freilicher, in an interview: “I might plunk down a number of vases, or some flowers, or some stuff, in a window, and add the window. I sketch around it, not really knowing what’s going to happen. At a certain point, I have an idea, and then I have to resolve it. Sometimes the resolution is bumpy. It’s sort of like moving furniture in a room where you think you have it and then you find it’s all wrong.” And James Schuyler, out of a 1966 essay, “The Painting of Jane Freilicher”: “Structure is an improvisation, composed as painted, not a skeleton to be fleshed out.” (Note, too, Schuyler’s wonderful reference therein to “the unexpectedness of nature, where the right place for a thing is where you find it.”) Too, there’s John Ashbery, in a piece collected in Reported Sightings: Art Chronicles, 1957-1987 (1989), recalling Freilicher’s early paintings: “. . . they seemed to accommodate both geometry and Expressionist surges, and they struck me at first as tentative, a quality I have since come to admire and consider one of her strengths, having concluded that most good things are tentative, or should be if they aren’t.” My love of the interrupted, the unfinished, the barely apprehended.

Out of The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley (2014), in a letter to Mitchell Goodman dated “October 3, 1951” (Creeley’s just quoted Fenollosa’s “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry”—“A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature. Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points, of actions, cross-sections cut through actions, snap-shots. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things . . .”):

Novel: all possible digression (I still feel that); all possible sequence from a to b to c. The whole problem of: sequence—is there ever any use in trying to deny anything that does happen in the actual writing, i.e., if one thing does ride in upon another, even though we have intended something else, what can we do by forcing, or what can we do but follow?   Which is the old song, etc.

The thing: to hinge oneself by a ‘plan’, an intention flexible enough to allow oneself growth in the act; i.e., the embarrassment of change, of how one does change, can’t help it, etc.

And yet, can’t write ‘all out doors’, etc. Have to begin, etc. The question seems to continue: how? But only to, begin—i.e., the 1st word, right or wrong, gets that out of the way?

Two problems: 1) to be able to follow the depth, the actual plunge of any perception (any thing coming to find its own character, in yourself), to be able to get down to that depth, somehow, to make it straight dive;

                           2) to be able to move, with all swiftness, between the divers perceptions, to be able to change, to shift, to play it like any broken-field running—because nature abhors, among other things, that gap between perceptions, etc.

Creeley’s “broken-field running” against Freilicher’s “bumpy” resolution. The tonal differences between the two—each positing an essentially like “stance”—is astounding. Creeley to Larry Eigner (“[undated, 1951]”): “Experience is Extension, is the grip, or so one might hope, on RELATION. The reach of a man’s experience comes to his apprehension of the RELATIONS (the what happens between himself, objects, himself AS object) posited by the ‘happening’ of experience.” One senses something rather antithetically inviolable and unyielding in the clench of Creeley’s commitment to “what happens.” (Oppose, for a moment, marking, mayhap, a difference between Black Mountain and New York School Ashbery’s version of such “mastery”—out of “The System”: “It is with some playfulness that we actually sit down to the business of mastering the many pauses and the abrupt, sharp accretions of regular being in the clotted sphere of today’s activities. As though this were just any old day. There is no need for setting out, to advertise one’s destination. All the facts are here and it remains only to use them in the right combination, but that building will be the size of today, the rooms habitable and leading into one another in a lasting sequence, eternal and of the greatest timeliness. . . .”)

Friday, November 07, 2014

Virgil Thomson and the State of Poetry

Alice Neel, “Virgil Thomson,” 1971

Something to put under the “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” rubric. Out of Virgil Thomson’s The State of Music (1939):
      Poetry is the oldest of the arts and the most respected. The musical tradition we practice has scarcely a thousand years. Architecture, sculpture, and decorative design have passed since ancient times through so many esthetic revolutions that very little is left in them of any authoritative tradition. Improvisational one-man easel-painting in oil (painting as we know it) dates barely from the seventeenth century.
      Poetry, as we know it, goes straight back to the Greeks and to the Hebrew children. There has been no interruption for twenty-five hundred years in the transmission of its technical procedures, no hiatus in the continuity of its comprehension by the literate classes of Europe. It has survived changes in religion, political revolutions, the birth and death of languages. Its classic masters enjoy a prestige scarcely exceeded by that of the Holy Evangelists. By populace and scholars alike they are admired above confessors and martyrs, priests, prophets, historians, psychologists, romancers, and ethical guides, and far above statesmen or soldiers, orators or newshawks. For they and their heirs are the recognized masters of the most puissant of all instruments, the word.
      The poetic prestige remains, but the poetic function has contracted. As champions of the arts of love, poets made war for centuries on the Christian Church and won. As analysts of its motivations and as experts of amorous device, they were the undisputed masters of that subject till Sigmund Freud, a nerve doctor, beat them at it in our own day. (Karl Marx, a nineteenth-century economist, had already beaten them at social analysis and at political prophecy.) With love now the specialty (in every aspect) of the medical profession, with government (both past and future) better understood by sectarian political groups and better explained by journalists, with dramaturgy better practiced in Hollywood and Joinville, and story-telling done more convincingly by the writers of police- fiction, what is there left for the poet to do that might even partially justify his hereditary prestige?
      He could retreat into “pure” poetry, of course; and he often tries to. Much good may it do him. Because the sorry truth is there is no such refuge. In recent years the poets have talked a good deal about “purity.” I am not sure what they mean by “pure” poetry, unless they mean poetry without a subject-matter; and that means exactly nothing.
      Music and painting can exist perfectly well without a subject-matter, at least without any obvious or stated subject-matter. Painting of this kind is called “abstract.” Musicians used to distinguish between “program” music and “absolute” music. The latter term meant music without a literary text or any specific illustrative intention, that is to say, instrumental music of an introspective nature. Neither “abstract” painting nor “absolute” music is any “purer” than any other kind of painting or music, and no painter or musician ever pretends it is. It is merely more obscure. When painters speak of “purity of line,” they mean a complete lack of obscurity. When they speak of a “pure” color, they mean a shade that is unequivocal. Say an artist’s intentions are “pure,” if you must. That means he is not commercial-minded. The word pure cannot possibly have any meaning when applied to the content or structure of literature. Poetry could be pure only if it could be devoid of meaning, which it can’t. You can make nonsense poetry, certainly; you can dissociate and reassociate words. But you cannot take the meanings out of words; you simply can’t. You can only readjust their order. And nobody can or ever does write poetry without a subject.
      What subjects, then, are available to the poet today? Practically none. Money, political events, heroism, science, mathematical logic, crime, the libido, the sexual variations, the limits of personality, the theory of revolution: the incidents of all these are more graphically recited by journalists, the principles better explained by specialists. There really isn’t much left for the heirs of Homer and Shakespeare to do but to add their case-histories to the documentation of introspective psychology by the practice of automatic writing. Highly trained in linguistics (though the philologists are not bad at that either) and wearing the mantle of the Great Tradition, admired unreasonably and feared not unreasonably (for they are desperate men), they still have, as poets, no civil status, no social function, no serious job to do, and no income.
      They haven’t even any audience to speak of. For some time now they have been depending mainly on one another for applause. Hence the pretentiousness and the high intellectual tone of all they write. I mean that for fifty years poetry has mostly been read by other poets, and that for a good thirty years now has mostly been written to be read by other poets.
      The impasse is complete. Contemporary civilization has no place for the poet save one of mere honor. Science, learning, journalism, fiction, religion, magic, and politics, all his ancient bailiwicks, are closed to him formally and completely. He is allowed to render small services to these now and then as a disseminator of existing knowledge. He is always regarded, however, by the specialists as a possible betrayer; and consequently at no time is he allowed to speak of such subjects with any but a temporarily delegated authority.
      His lot is a tragic one. Nothing is left him of his art but an epigone’s skill and some hereditary prestige. This last is still large enough to give him face in front of his co-citizens and to keep up the recruiting. It doesn’t pay anything at all, of course. It won’t buy a beer, a bus-fare, or a contraceptive. Nor does it prevent the darkest despair from seizing him when he is alone.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Creeley’s Letters

Robert Creeley in Buffalo, c. 1982
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Reading, in smallish batches, the Rod Smith, Peter Baker, and Kaplan Harris-edited The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley (U. of California Press, 2014), rather daunted at times by Creeley’s plug-ugly prose, “burred with puncta, and virgule variety,” particularly in the letters to Charles Olson, mimicking Olson’s own, though capable of sudden percept and clarity: “No such thing as objectivity for the man who wants to do a good job.”* How little it seems to be acknowledged, that some notes by Wallace Stevens lie directly behind Creeley’s renowned remark, touted by Olson, that “form is never more than an extension of content.” Creeley, writing to Olson in a letter dated “Apr/28/50”:
      Thinking of Stevens, who slipped into PR, with this: ‘Poetic form in its proper sense is a question of what appears within the poem itself . . . By appearance within the poem itself one means the things created and existing there . . . ’ Basic. Yet they won’t see it, that it cannot be a box or a bag or what you will.
Creeley quoting lines out of Stevens’s reply to a 1948 Partisan Review questionnaire concerning “The State of American Writing.” Stevens, under the rubric “Experiment in Form”:
There is . . . a usage with respect to form as if form in poetry was a derivative of plastic shape. . . . Poetic form in its proper sense is a question of what appears within the poem itself. It seems worth while to isolate this because it is always form in its inimical senses that destroys poetry. By inimical senses one means the trivialities. By appearance within the poem itself one means the things created and existing there.
Stevens’s “plastic shape” becoming Creeley’s “box or a bag,” the triviality of form presupposed. A few weeks later—in a letter to Olson dated “Monday/june 5”—Creeley’s reworking of Stevens’s formula arrives, descending out of a complaint against the supposed primacy of form in Auden’s work:
. . . absolute bull/shit. That is: the intelligence that had touted Auden as being a technical wonder, etc. Lacking all grip on the worn & useless character of his essence: thought. An attitude that puts weight, first: on form/ more than to say: what you have above: will never get to: content. Never in god’s world. Anyhow, form has now become so useless a term/ that I blush to use it. I wd imply a little of Stevens’ use (the things created in a poem and existing there . . . & too, go over into: the possible casts or methods for a way into/ a ‘subject’: to make it clear: that form is never more than an extension of content. An enacted or possible ‘stasis’ for thought. Means to.
Form being simply the “means to” a momentary “stasis”—thought caught. Content itself delivering up its required form. (Or is the “Means to” meant to point to form as a vehicle for the delivery of content?) If “content” seems primary in Creeley’s original statement, a sort of balance is struck in a subsequent letter to Olson (dated “June 21—50”):
A man, each man, is NEW. If his method, his form, IS the logic of his content: he cannot be but: NEW/ ‘original’. But the changes, whatever, in an existing method, by a man coming up, will most certainly, not of necessity: mean: new content. In the sense that it must be.
Recalling, surtout, Williams. I think of the Williams of The Great American Novel (1923), mocking himself with Williamsesqueries de trop and abounding delight:
      I’m new, said she, I don’t think you’ll find my card here. You’re new; how interesting. Can you read the letters on that chart? Open your mouth. Breathe. Do you have headaches? No. Ah, yes, you are new. I’m new, said the oval moon at the bottom of the mist funnel, brightening and paling. I don’t think you’ll find my card there. Open your mouth—Breathe—A crater big enough to hold the land from New York to Philadelphia. New! I’m new, said the quartz crystal on the parlor table—like glass—Mr. Tiffany bought a car load of them. Like water or white rock candy—I’m new, said the mist rising from the duck pond, rising, curling, turning under the moon—Unknown grasses asleep in the level mists, pieces of the fog. Last night it was an ocean. Tonight trees. Already it is yesterday. Turned into the wrong street seeking to pass the power house from which the hum, hmmmmmmmmmmmmm—sprang. Electricity has been discovered for ever. I’m new, says the great dynamo. I am progress. I make a word. Listen! UMMMMMMMMMMMM—
* And capable, too, of a sort of brash comic insolence. I’m thinking of Creeley’s remarks regarding Eliot (“Eliot’s work, in the past, is of immense value for anyone who wants to take the time to go into it. I certainly have . . .”), found in a letter to Cid Corman dated “[April 23, 1950]”:
But when a man who up to this point has driven the car very nicely begins to go all over the road, we do not let him keep his seat. We kick him to hell out before we all crash. We don’t let him go on, in the case of Eliot, representing us, since he was once able to.
Premonitory, somehow, of Creeley’s c. 1954 “I Know a Man.”

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

O’Hara, Apollinaire, and the Telephone

Guillaume Apollinaire, 1880-1918

Leafing through a bound volume of the quarterly The Symposium (wherein William Carlos Williams’s 1931 review “Excerpts from a Critical Sketch: The XXX Cantos of Ezra Pound” first appeared), I find—in a Philip Blair Rice-signed piece called “A Modern Poet’s Technique: Guillaume Apollinaire”—an excerpt out of André Billy’s 1923 memoir Apollinaire Vivant:
      He [Apollinaire], Dupuy and I are seated at the Crucifix, rue Daunou, before three glasses of vermouth. Suddenly Guillaume bursts out laughing: he has completely forgotten to write the preface for Robert Delaunay’s catalogue which he promised to put in the mail today at the latest. “Quickly, waiter, pen and ink! The three of us will soon get it over with.”
      Guillaume’s pen is already moving:
Du rouge au vert tout le jaune se meurt
Then it stops. But Dupuy dictates:
Quand chantent les aras dans les forêts natales
The pen starts again, transcribing the phrase faithfully. It adds:
Abatis de pihis
Then it stops again. And it is my turn to dictate:
II y a un poème à faire sur l’oiseau qui n’a qu’une aile.
      A reminiscence of Alcools that the pen traces without hesitating.
     “Since you are in a hurry,” I said then, “why not send your preface by telephone?”
      And that is why the next verse is as follows:
Nous l’enverrons en message téléphonique.
I read that and immediately recall O’Hara’s lines out of “Personism: A Manifesto,” the jaunty report of its origin:
It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. . . .
The poem Apollinaire, Billy, and company construct is Apollinaire’s “Les Fenêtres” (found in the 1918 Calligrammes).* Surely O’Hara knew the poem, likely in both its original French and in Roger Shattuck’s translation (published in the 1950 New Directions Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire). O’Hara’d read with Shattuck early in 1956 (he reports in a letter to James Schuyler dated February 11, 1956: “I must tell you a couple of cute things about the reading with Roger Shattuck which I felt was rather encouraging (no fear of this!), in the sense that when people I don’t like or admire turn out to like my work it makes me extremely uneasy . . .”) Shattuck’s translation reads:

The yellow fades from red to green
When aras sing in their native forest
Pihis giblets
There is a poem to be done on the bird with only one wing
We will send it by telephone
Giant traumatism
It makes one’s eyes run
There is one pretty one among all the young girls from Turin
The unfortunate young man blows his nose in his white necktie
You will lift the curtain
And now look at the window opening
Spiders when hands were weaving light
Beauty paleness unfathomable violet tints
We shall try in vain to take our ease
They start at midnight
When one has time one has liberty
Periwinkles Burbot multiple Suns and Sea-urchin of the setting sun
An old pair of yellow shoes in front of the window
Towers are streets
Wells are market places
Hollow trees which shelter vagabond Capresses
The Octoroons sing songs of dying
To their chestnut-colored wives
And the goose honk honk trumpets in the north
When raccoon hunters
Scrape their pelts
Gleaming diamond
Where the train white with snow and fires of the night flees the winter
O Paris
The yellow fades from red to green
Paris Vancouver Hyères Maintenon New York and the Antilles
The window opens like an orange
Lovely fruit of light
(Is there a tiny echo of Apollinaire’s “Beauty paleness unfathomable violet tints / We shall try in vain to take our ease . . .” in O’Hara’s December 5, 1959 “Poem” beginning “Light       clarity       avocado salad in the morning / after all the terrible things I do how amazing it is / to find forgiveness and love . . .”? Perhaps.)

I doubt O’Hara saw the Billy excerpt in The Symposium. Did he search out Billy’s Apollinaire Vivant (listed in Shattuck’s select “Bibliography” to the Selected Writings)? Unlikely. One senses that O’Hara’s French wasn’t impeccable, wasn’t fluent. It’s somewhat possible, though, that he investigated Matthew Josephson’s 1923 translation of Apollinaire’s The Poet Assassinated. Therein, appended to a pronouncement by the Apollinaire-styled protagonist Croniamantal (“I shall from now on write only poetry free from all restrictions even that of language”), one finds a note by Josephson that includes, too, a rendering of Billy’s report.** No proof, all wild conjectural guff, myself its “onlie begetter.” That O’Hara read either Apollinaire’s “Les Fenêtres” or anything out of Billy’s Apollinaire Vivant, who knows? It’s easy to begin to see echoes un peu partout. In Josephson’s “Biographical Notice” that prefaces The Poet Assassinated I read some quoted lines by Apollinaire’s friend the writer and caricaturist André Rouveyre, out of the latter’s 1921 Souvenirs de mon commerce:
“Vain to be astonished at his continual feast-making, at the rash exploits he undertook, at the crown of thorns he inflicted upon himself . . . He was a prodigious creator and all of his literary and social games, were of the most brilliant and lavish character, far more so than their objects. Like God, who could make man out of nothing, Apollinaire made many, with the same poverty of material.”
Gonflée, I suppose. What stopped me: the construction of “Vain to be astonished . . .” How “Grace / to be born and live as variously as possible . . .” (a rather uncommon arrangement to begin with) rings against it. Another impossibly tiny echo coming down through the receiver of the years . . .
* One of the “Poèmes de la paix et de la guerre (1913-1916)”:
Les Fenêtres

Du rouge au vert tout le jaune se meurt
Quand chantent les aras dans les forêts natales
Abatis de pihis
II y a un poème à faire sur l’oiseau qui n’a qu’une aile
Nous l’enverrons en message téléphonique
Traumatisme géant
Il fait couler les yeux
Voilà une jolie jeune fille parmi les jeunes Turinaises
Le pauvre jeune homme se mouchait dans sa cravate blanche
Tu soulèveras le rideau
Et maintenant voilà que s’ouvre la fenêtre
Araignées quand les mains tissaient la lumière
Beauté pâleur insondables violets
Nous tenterons en vain de prendre du repos
On commencera à minuit
Quand on a le temps on a la liberté
Bigorneaux Lotte multiples Soleils et l’Oursin du couchant
Une vieille paire de chaussures jaunes devant la fenêtre
Les Tours ce sont les rues
Puits ce sont les places
Arbres creux qui abritent les Câpresses vagabondes
Les Chabins chantent des airs à mourir
Aux Chabines maronnes
Et l’oie oua-oua trompette au nord
Où les chasseurs de ratons
Raclent les pelleteries
Étincelant diamant
Où le train blanc de neige et de feux nocturnes fuit l’hiver
Ô Paris
Du rouge au vert tout le jaune se meurt
Paris Vancouver Hyères Maintenon New-York et les Antilles
La fenêtre s’ouvre comme une orange
Le beau fruit de la lumière
** Rather sloppily done by Josephson, with some material elided (and a howler):
      He, Dupuy, and I are sitting at Crucifix with three glasses of vermouth. Suddenly Guillaume bursts out laughing—he has completely forgotten to write the preface to Robert Delaunay’s catalogue, which he promised to mail that evening. “Quick waiter, pen and ink! Three of us will get through with this in a jiffy.” Guillaume’s pen is off already:
      “Of red and green all the yellow dies.”
      His pen stops.
      But Dupuy dictates:
      “When the arras sing in our natal forests.”
      The pen starts off again transcribing faithfully.
      It is my turn:
      “There is a poem to be written about the bird with but one wing.”
      A reminiscence from Alcools—the pen writes without a stop.
     “A good thing to do if there is any hurry,” I said, “would be to send your preface over the telephone.”
      And so the next line became:
      “And we shall send this by the telephone.”
      I no longer remember all the details of this singular collaboration, but I can state that the preface to the catalogue of Robert Delaunay came out entire.