Saturday, December 07, 2002

Donald Wesling was the first person to tell that I had to read Geoffrey Hill some twenty years ago. I finally got around to it recently with Speech! Speech! a series of 120 12-line poems, one for each of the 120 days of Sodom. It’s one of those books that you – or at least I – want to like. 

At one level, this book seeks a certain density of language, far more taut & compact than most poets operating within the conservative tradition of the British Isles. In that sense, it’s closest kin among Hill’s peers might be Paul Muldoon, like Hill a full-time teacher in the U.S. Still, Hill’s condensare is quite a bit looser than many folks on this side of the pond, from Zukofsky to Bök. Rather, Speech! Speech! gestures at density, stuffing the text with CAPITALS, foreign languages, néédless accents, feigned dialect & odd slices of vertical punctuation (“|”)  to arrive at a sort of huff-&-puff dramatic monolog, with an eye to Berryman & an ear towards Hopkins:

Fine figure of a man, say it. Try
thís for size. Say it | why are we waiting?
Get stuck in. Hurdy-gurdy the starter
handle to make backfire. Call monthlies
double-strength stale fleurs du mal. Too close
for comfort | say it, Herr Präsident, weep
lubricant and brimstone, wipe yo’ smile.
wasted on pleasantries of intermission.
Say it: licence to silence: say it: me
Tarzan, you | diva of multiple choice,
rode proud on oúr arousal-cárrousel.

There is not one single device here that wasn’t used in, say, The Cantos, so the question here cannot be one of breaking new ground. Content-wise, any Poetry Project workshop student who couldn’t comment more succinctly on Mr. Clinton’s personal foibles would stand ashamed – at twelve lines, Hill’s text is seriously bloated. Underneath its gaudy exterior, individual lines range between nine & twelve syllables, generally yielding (if you buy all those accents) ye olde five-foot meter, but at least not with tub-thumping regularity in feet. Hill’s dramatic mode throughout is closer to Mauberly than to the later Pound. It seems patently evident that this work, both in this section & throughout the volume, wants to appear far more Modern than Hill himself is willing to go. With an apocalyptic vision of life right out of The Waste Land, Speech! Speech! is Modern with a capital M. Which is to say that it is not at all contemporary.

The inherent conflict in a conservative poet trying to write as a Modern led to some great results in Hart Crane’s The Bridge. Seven plus decades later, it has the feel of an historic re-enactment, the way modernism might be carried out by something like Civil War buffs on a Sunday afternoon. It’s not unlike the Bloomsday readings of Ulysses that have become an annual literary sport in several cities . . . except that Joyce is the real deal, while Speech! Speech! is merely aggressively faux.

Still, there is both an ear & a wit here. The last three lines are lovely even with the Christmas-tree ornamentation of accent & punctuation. And there are moments in the first nine lines where the over-the-top stylistics are sort of fun. If Hill could just be read without the critical trappings that have been appended to this minor art, he might be quite enjoyable. That, alas, is an insurmountable if . . . .

Hill himself doesn’t seem so full of pretense. After all, his models here are decidedly minor. Hill would be far better served by his advocates if they would not go about declaring him “indisputably the best living poet in English and perhaps in the world” (Peter Levi), “The strongest British poet now alive” (Harold Bloom), “the best English poet of the twentieth century” (Donald Hall)  or “the finest British poet of our time” (John Hollander). Hall, at least, should know better.

What pathology inscribes such hubris? Do these critics think that by making such sweepingly ridiculous claims that they can abolish the actual history of British literature over the past 100 years, let alone that of the rest of the English speaking world,? Are they actually ignorant of the work of Basil Bunting, Jeremy Prynne, Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, Lee Harwood, Ian Hamilton Finlay or Hugh MacDiarmid? They’ve never heard of Samuel Beckett or William Butler Yeats? Against the drab backdrop of the conservative tradition in British literature, the likes of Larkin & Hughes, Hill can be said to shine, unquestionably, although I think you could make a good argument that Auden & Thom Gunn offer considerably more in the way of substance. But that tradition doesn’t represent even one third of British literature and the “see no contemporary / hear no contemporary / speak no contemporary” monkeys of canonic Establishmentarianism not only commit critical malpractice when they pretend otherwise, they also do serious damage to the very person whose poetry they claim to support. Poor Geoffrey Hill!


Friday, December 06, 2002

Metablog: Somebody named Silliman’s Blog as the Blog of the Day for today, December 6. We’re humbled & amused. Also, Brian Kim Stefans wrote really nice things about the blog in The Poetry Project Newsletter. You can read the article in Brian’s own blog: Free Space Comix. Jonathan Mayhew has some even more extravagant things to say about this venture in his own excellent blog. Golly gosh. My thanks to all.

Carl Boon, in his very first question during the interview that ran here a few weeks back, asked me to position my work towards what he calls “the ‘clash zone,’ the space where technology meets nature,” to which I responded: 

Now for reasons that are much more social than natural, I’m somewhat obsessed with documenting “the invisible” in our lives. If there’s an enduring theme in my work, that’s it. And in urban environment especially, nature is one of those dimensions that recedes. One tends to forget that sparrows are great urban foragers, or how weeds fit into the ecological chain, but they’re there.

This response provoked another question for Carl, as follows:

Why is it so important to document “the invisible in our lives”? Do you have some sense that sparrows and weeds are vanishing in our increasingly urbanized, “parking-lot” landscape?

This goes right back to the motivation for writing in the first place, or at least my motivation. When one is raised, as I was, in a household in which one of the adults has repeated, lengthy & fairly severe psychotic episodes – the apotheosis for me was being chased around a table at knifepoint – and no one in the family is able to speak the words “mental illness,” the question of the invisible comes up front & center.

Not that I would have articulated it as such. From the perspective of me at the age of ten, I had simply found a way – creative writing – that I discovered would cause most of my teachers to let me replace any major homework assignment that I found difficult, boring or otherwise repellant: I would offer to write a story or report on the general subject. Writing also gave me a safe place to be, and an acceptable reason for not interacting with that same adult, my grandmother, if I wanted some space, literally, for myself.

Although I didn’t recognize at the time, writing was also giving me a series of tools that were of exceptional value in terms of organizing the world as I was experiencing it – beginning by dealing with such obvious questions as why my family life seemed so different from that of so many (though not all) of the kids around me. I didn’t deal with those questions directly, at least not as a kid & really in many ways not until I got to the age at which my own father had died – 38.

Somewhere in the process, though, I got the idea that there was an awful lot of the contemporary world that was hidden from many, perhaps most, of the people around me. When I was a kid, I would have articulated that in terms of civil rights, and the individual rights of people – especially artists – struggling in Eastern Europe against the censorship of the state. If Jonathan Mayhew thinks I’m earnest now, he should have seen me at the age of 15 or thereabouts. I’m sure that I was insufferable.*

That equation – that the civil rights marchers had much in common with the Hungarian rebels in 1956 and that Eugene “Bull” Connor had even more in common with the heirs of Stalin – stuck with me & proved essential in not only giving me an orientation toward such basic terms as justice, but also gave me the ability & willingness to be the only member of my high school graduating class to file immediately for conscientious objector’s status, which I did within 48 hours of my 18th birthday. Whenever I look at the Vietnam memorial wall in Washington & see the names of people I grew up with like Ray Nora and Chris Martinez etched into that marble, it reminds me that writing might very well have saved my life on more than one occasion.

So while I’m less concerned with weeds & sparrows, I am always conscious of how the invisible manifests itself, again & again in life. Certainly any man of my generation will recall just how radically differently the relations between genders were back in the early 1960s. It was exactly the “obviousness” of sexist patterns that seemed invisible to men back then, just as many people today have no clue of all the homophobic systems we have in place throughout our lives, the ways in which “daily life” could seem an active campaign for heterosexuality, especially to anyone who doesn’t share in that common myth. So I would articulate my interest in the invisible in terms of the social, more than the natural – especially since I think “nature” is a cultural category, rather like “God,” something we impose on the universe as we live in it – but I often feel that the commitments I felt when I was ten years old are an awful good test of not only my writing, but my life, & bringing the unseen into the foreground is central to those commitments.

* Memo to self: write a piece someday on the importance of insufferable people. Insufferability is deeply underappreciated, just because it’s déjà toujours so obnoxious.

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Thursday, December 05, 2002

My allusion, in the interview with Carl Boon, to “getting a complete version of The Age of Huts ready” generated a number of email questions. Carl himself may have raised the issue most succinctly:

There are three works in The Age of Huts: Sunset Debris, The Chinese Notebook, and 2197. What changes will appear in the complete version? Revisions of these works or additional new works?

The Age of Huts originally contained a fourth work, Ketjak, the first in the cycle of the four poems. When Barrett Watten offered to publish Ketjak as a separate book – an event that changed my life – I had not yet completed the other three works, which I worked on more or less simultaneously during the 1975-78 time frame. In addition there are two other poems, Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps & BART, written during the same time frame that have what I would characterize as an adjunct relationship to the cycle of four poems.

Ketjak proved to be the hinge work in my life. Once it appeared in 1978, four years after I’d actually written the poem, I was able to publish pretty much whatever I wanted, at least in journals, a process that forced me to be much more careful about what I consider “complete” or ready to publish. The 800 copies of Ketjak printed by This Press, however, were already largely out of print when The Age of Huts was published by Roof in 1986. Tjanting, written after The Age of Huts – it’s the bridge work between Huts & The Alphabet – was published in 1981 literally within a couple of months of its completion. So the narrative of publication has not been the same as that of composition.

I’ve tried at times to articulate the relationship between Ketjak & the rest of Huts, going so far in the Quarry West issue devoted to my work to publish a chart.* Now, of course, with both books out of print, the question of order is truly academic. But Salt is about to reissue Tjanting and I hope to complete The Alphabet by the end of 2003. Once that is done, I will turn to The Age of Huts and deal with that in more detail. I’ve had a number of conversations with Charles Alexander about it as a project for Chax Press, so my hope would be that it ends up there – but I doubt this would be anything that will get done until later in the decade. Then, after that, I’ll start to think more seriously about one or two books of critical writing. That is the plan.

* Albeit one that I think must be confusing to anyone who doesn’t realize that I use the name Ketjak not just to refer to that original text, but also to the larger writing project I am in the middle of, containing Huts, The Alphabet & the poem I have yet to begin. The chart also fails to deal with BART & Sitting Up adequately. I may be the poet most apt to use charts in critical writing, but that doesn’t mean I always use them well.

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Wednesday, December 04, 2002

When Curtis Faville’s L Press published Blue is the Hero, a comprehensive collection of Bill Berkson's poetry between 1960 & 1975, it demonstrated just how effectively Berkson had adapted the aesthetic devices of John Ashbery and turned them to an entirely different project, one with a radically different scale. That memory has popped into my head on several occasions while reading Hoa Nguyen’s Your Ancient See Through (subpress, 2002). Nguyen’s model appears not to be Ashbery so much as Ted Berrigan, particularly his use of fragments, especially within lines, combined with sharp jumps from apparent subject to subject.

Sharp is an adjective that comes to mind a lot when reading Nguyen’s poems:

I’m almost your cat’s pajamas
your topsy turvy all over
almost a pinup of yarnballs
at the rest-stop of undeclared wars
(the way Descartes faked it)
give me history or give me
a name unknown in zoology
So I can be anything but empty doll
all jammed body doll       a pregnancy
to be “natural”

A poem like this is like discovering that one of your Christmas tree ornaments is a live grenade. It concentrates all the resentment of the subaltern into that word “almost,” showing at one level a bright, multicolored surface – think of the careful but casual prosody of “almost a pinup of yarnballs” – only to reveal an old-school feminism that concludes on a moment right out of Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” the word “’natural’” in quotation marks. Writing this tight, this intelligent & this full of emotion on so many different levels is always exciting, thrilling even.

Nguyen’s poems often leave inexplicable openings into the world that give them the resonance of life, deeply lived:

Cats underwater as part of a zoo
tableau              orange tabby cats
sad wet fur                      They blink
so rarely             moldy necks
My sister doesn’t feel anything
I was wearing the old black hat
on the subway    when I saw the old lover
I think he has a “lard ass”

At one level, this is a poem with two major half-comic “events”:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>the depiction of this strange feline tableau
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>the sighting of a former lover
What rivets the text, however, in more ways in one, is the connecting line – neither comic nor ironic in the slightest – “My sister doesn’t feel anything.” It generates more than a contrast, almost a yawning chasm between the two bemused sections, an undercurrent of sadness that the poem is never fully permitted to escape.

Think of how differently this poem poses its tension compared with something like Rilke’s iconic “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” in which the radical shift of the famous last sentence, Du mußt dein Leben ändern, carries the ponderous weight of all 13½ previous lines. Nguyen’s poem actually ends on the ironically optimistic note of envisioning her former lover with a “lard ass.“ Where the structure of Rilke’s sonnet is cathartic, Nguyen’s poses a 3D universe in which depression & humor co-exist, precisely as it is seen to do in the tableau of the cats with their (not coincidentally) “sad wet fur.“ Rilke gives us a lesson; Nguyen gives us the world.

Poem after poem in Your Ancient See Through opens up to this sort of close reading, revealing an extraordinary universe, vibrant, comic, angry, both in turn & at once. Nguyen never settles for the easy road to the polished effect. One result is that I trust her instincts as a poet completely.

Your Ancient See Through is the latest book in a terrific project, subpress (the name deliberately lower case). Other volumes to date have been by Scott Bentley, Daniel Bouchard, Catalina Cariaga, Brett Evans, Camille Gutrie, Jen Hofer, Steve Malmude, John McNally, Prageeta Sharma, Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard, Edwin Torres & John Wilkinson. A note on the verso states that

subpress is a collective supported by 19 individuals who have agreed to donate 1% of their yearly income for at least three years. Each person is responsible for editing one book.

With six volumes apparently still to go, subpress already boasts an all-star line-up of mostly newer writers. You certainly would much rather your first big book come out from subpress than, say, the Yale Younger Poets. Both series may be committed to bringing serious attention to new writing, but it is subpress that delivers the goods. That name on the spine alone warrants buying each new volume as it appears. Hopefully, the subpress collective won’t disperse once the first 19 volumes come into print. And hopefully also others will take note of this approach to small press publishing – it’s definitely a winner.

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Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Daisy Fried writes to challenge my use of the term conservative to characterize members of the broad literary heritage that I’ve generally been calling the “school of quietude” here on the blog:


It's VERY nice of you to mention me on your BLOG as a person you like to read--you're somebody whose good opinion means a lot. And you're one of a number anti-coherent poets I read with pleasure. [Just trying out "anti-coherent" as a general semi-neologism for language poetry, Ashbery poetry and various offspring. Hmmm....]

Now, I assume by conservative you don't mean politically conservative--though I also realize you perhaps you don't separate politics and poetics much, but still--Dugan (my hero!) is a clearly a red, and Hass is or at least used to be left-liberal, as is Annie F., and Muldoon seems to be pretty left...etc...

So do you think it's automatically conservative to value closure, to be generally accessible in traditional (which is different from conservative) ways, or to not be particularly interested in the opaque signifier? Is it automatically liberal on the other hand, to do the kinds of processes/ practices/writings that are lately called experimental? From other remarks you made on the BLOG I think you would say no, so I'm just curious about your use of the word 'conservative'.

Lucien Freud and Alice Neel were painting bodies all during period when abstract expressionism was the last big innovation, and painting even the slightest bit representationally was a big no-no. But now the general consensus is that they were pretty damn good and innovative. And I don't think it's possible to call them conservative...[well, I don't know anything about Freud's politics; Neel was a member of the Communist part--but I mean their aesthetic is no longer thought to be conservative either, right?] Is there an analogy here?

Also, all this experimental poetry, or lang-po/post-lang-po (and you'll forgive me for throwing around terms in this inexact way) seems deeply academic to me. Which is no indication of its quality one way or the other, but most of the so-called experimentalists are middle-class kids who go to grad school and are taught by people of your generation, if not by you, how to be avant whatever, no? Just like the other middle-class kids who go to the other schools where other kinds of poetry are taught by various generations. Nothing against middle class kids who go to grad school (if I'd gone, and I almost did once, that would have described me too) but it sort of seems against the whole idea of being experimental or radical or anti-mainstream in ones work, to learn how to be those things from a university teacher, doesn't it?

All best,
your fan,

I want to respond to two points. One is my use of the term conservative, the other is the concept of anti-coherency, which Daisy concedes is a neologism she’s just trying on, but which is also an idea that I’ve heard enough times before to understand is a conception that might exist in the world.

I wouldn’t characterize what I call the post-avant traditions, even in their most extreme forms such as vizpo & sound poetry, as anti-coherency. If anything, I think that the very opposite is true, that they form a poetics of a greater coherency, precisely because it must be a coherency earned by & within the writing, not something easily assumed. Too often, bad writing within the school of quietude presumes that simply by positing a narrating persona, coherency will follow. That is precisely the same kind of presumption that lies behind the use of family or workplace as the contextual site for almost all television sitcoms, and to parallel result. If anything, poets of the easy coherency tendencies have it harder, because the idea that the work of the poem has already been done for them is so terribly seductive. Those who can write past this do indeed achieve something worth note. But my experience of most poetry of the easy coherency variety is very much like my experience of most television sitcoms – they’re unwatchable. I’d rather have a root canal than read 30 lines by 98 percent of the poets who simply think they’re coherent when they really aren’t. For me as a reader, the far greater problem is how to find that mysterious two percent who consistently do reward my effort.

It is not that bad poetry cannot be written in the post-avant mode – sign on to the Poetics List for awhile – but that almost all practitioners of post-avant writing have had to confront such questions of form, content, coherency, implication, context, responsibility and any other number of qualities of the poem from scratch. On average, they have had to work much harder and far more thoughtfully than their counterparts on the far side of the genre in almost anything they have written. & when they don’t do their homework, it shows immediately. There may be self-delusion, but there is no hiding allowed for post-avant poets.

I would cite the example of my own poetry as a demonstration of this – I was able to publish in such magazines as Poetry, Tri-Quarterly, Southern Review & Poetry Northwest within three years of starting to write poetry seriously. It was not because I was good, but because it was easy. It was much more difficult to appear in publications of the post-avant tendencies of that time, because such writing demanded so much more of me as a poet.

If I were to define poetry, it is that art of language that demands the most of me, both as a reader and as a writer.

And that seems the appropriate segue to Daisy’s core question:

So do you think it's automatically conservative to value closure, to be generally accessible in traditional (which is different from conservative) ways, or to not be particularly interested in the opaque signifier?

The question of accessibility is a potential problem here. What makes poetry of the schools of quietude “accessible” is only that they have been institutionally ingrained for a century (or, in some ways, far longer), mostly in high school & undergraduate curricula. Having given readings in such venues as streetcorners or the Maximum Security Library at Folsom State Prison, I don’t think there’s anything “inaccessible” about my poetry, even when the audience has had little in the way of formal education or the context of a rich literary heritage. If anything, it is educational malpractice that may make post-avant poetics sometimes seem difficult, not the poetry itself. There is a qualitative difference between asking the reader to use all of their senses to read and being deliberately obscure.

As to the question of tradition, my one response would be whose tradition? It is post-avant writing, I would argue, that more accurately represents the tradition not just of Pound & Williams, Stein & Zukofsky, Stevens & Crane, but also Whitman & Dickinson, Blake, Wordsworth & Coleridge. The schools of quietude represent exactly those counter tendencies within Anglo heritage with whom those poets invariably had to contend. And while there are some important writers who arose out of that other poetics, such as my distant in-law, Mr. Tennyson, I would happily put up my tradition against any other over time.

Ultimately, I use the term conservative as a literal description – not, for example, the way I would describe George W., who would have to move well to the left to become a conservative. I always pick Wendell Berry as my demonstration for what I mean, because in his work conservative & conservation are wedded seamlessly as values – and it is in this sense that he strikes me as a very great poet. Berry is quite conscious – and unapologetic – about his premodernist position and its anti-modern implications. What separates him from approximately 99 percent of his peers along the side of quietude is not only his talent, but also his self-understanding.

Different genres of art respond to changes in time & history in different ways. When Pound, Joyce & Stein were first demonstrating how a poetics might respond to the modern world prior to World War I, Bing Crosby had yet to discover the ways in which the microphone could be used to transform the public art of song. Poetry since that time has changed less than has popular music, in part because the latter, not unlike painting, is artificially accelerated through the influx of capital and the need to continually generate new markets. Lisa Jarnot, Jena Osman & Christian Bök are closer to Pound & Stein, for example, than Marshall Mathers is to Bing Crosby. But the idea of a poetry that characterizes as traditional the idea of writing as if Pound, Stein et al were still 100 years yet into the future cries out for examination. Such a poetics is understandable as a political position – the way Berry treats it – but not really on any other terms. If I try to analyze why poets would thus want to write conservatively, terms like denial and avoidance immediately come to mind.

If I continue my comparison with popular music a little further, I can of course find people who still sing, & even compose, opera. Michael Feinstein & Harry Connick, Jr. continue to perform as though Frank Sinatra & Sammy Davis, Jr. will be sitting at the front table. Every major mode of rock that has come into existence still has some manifestation in the current culture. So forms continue, but as they do their meaning alters profoundly. One could argue, for example, that Eminem is a natural descendent of 1950’s doo-wop culture, given a heavy political twist. But a completely traditional doo-wop group would have a hard time getting a record deal from a major label. Doo-wop, it is worth noting, is historically parallel with Allen Ginsberg & Frank O’Hara – it comes after Robert Lowell.

If there is a counter argument to be made along the lines of my music analogy, it would be constructed around that tradition that used to be called folk music but that now more often goes under the heading of the “singer-songwriter” tradition, a creation not so much of Appalachia as of the Popular Front of the 1930s. Here also, as with Wendell Berry, the music is constructed around a complex of political ideas that are not accidental. I happen to like a number of these ideas*, frankly, which may explain why I do listen to folk music, along with avant-garde jazz, rock, world music & even occasionally opera. But I would note that the folk tradition has changed considerably over the decades and that the Kingston Trio-Limelighter 1950s is a far cry from the O Brother Wherefore Art Thou 2000s. Anybody who proposes to play acoustic Delta blues today is understood exactly as an historic re-enactor of a tradition, not an actual participant. That is exactly the position into which most “traditional” poetry falls, with the notable exception that blues literally began after World War I with the work of people like Charlie Patton. What we are really talking about in the case of poetry is more like Stephen Foster imitations presented as images of contemporary life. Just the sort of thing that Jeff Koons loves to make fun of.

So yes, I would call what you term “traditional” poetry conservative – that’s the positive term, when such poetry & its practitioners understand what they’re about. More of it I fear is simply pathological, which I find the much more disturbing aspect of the troubled school of quietude.

* The commitment to community & human scale in particular. Interestingly, I find these same values in contemporary post-avant jazz, such as in the Rova Saxophone Quartet or the work of Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton et al, but not in commercialized smooth jazz.

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Monday, December 02, 2002

Robert Kelly’s Finding the Measure is full of poems of great interest beyond the “prefix” I looked at yesterday, only five of which (out of 43) make their way into Kelly’s selected Red Actions. While the “prefix” is included, among my favorite of the excluded works is “On a Picture of a Black Bird Given to Me by Arthur Tress,” as close to an objective poem as Measure contains. It opens:

Raven        in Chiapas
beak up open to
flat white Mexican light
against which an arch is breaking its back to join the broken sky

barbs of its feathers hang down, it cries out
for a world full of carrion
but its claws
hold firm & flat
the top of the ruined sill

The poem demonstrates conclusively Kelly’s ability to be far more than a poet of pure statement. The prosody of that first stanza is simply stunning – not a single syllable that does not actively contribute above & beyond the denotative level of the words or their connotative resonances.

Another wonderful poem can be found on the facing page, “To the Memory of Giordano Bruno,” a poem in two columns, the right one of which has it is lines, words & letters printed in reverse, so that one need read it in a mirror. A third excluded poem that certainly had its impact on the young Ron Silliman as reader is “First in an Alphabet of Sacred Animals,” a meditation on murder that begins

The ANT for all his history is a stranger
& his message is the gospel of an alien order
& his & his & his

works are furious in the crust of the earth
his house & his bread

(We must start with him because he is other,
he comes from a nowhere underneath us
& returns again & does not know us)

this is the easiest animal to kill.

Today I did not kill an ant
                                             a great big black one
& it became necessary to think
of the price of an ant’s death:
                                                      nothing we do
is without consequence)
                                            & in the taking of an ant’s life
is the taking of life

But the ant is not an albatross & dies easy
& soon his carcass is gone, who knows where they go
the bodies of insects we kill,
                                                   when we take life
                                                    what do we give?
-What is the price
of killing an ant
-What intricate microscopic karma do we fulfill
in crushing him
-What cosmic debt does he repay under my foot
-Will we notice the pain
with which we must one day surely atone for his death
-Or are there beings (& are there beings)
who step on us lightly as we tread ants?
that is the hideous question someone is always asking
Egypt after Egypt

& onward for another page before concluding with a section in prose. Kelly’s thesis here, as elsewhere, is compelled not to argue for the ant simply for its sake, but to connect it up, here to Egypt & thus to that larger system within the word “Sacred” in the title.

Also excluded from Red Actions is the twelve-part “Zodiac Cycle,” a series that is accorded pride of place in Measure, with each section – individual poems really – illustrated with its astrological symbol printed large in deep blue ink.

A closer reading of Red Actions would I suspect show that the elimination of a sequence such as  Zodiac Cycle” is not accidental. Kelly’s writing offers so very many choices – Finding the Measure, after all, was the 14th book of poems of Kelly’s published in just nine years; in his spare time, he also edited A Controversy of Poets, wrote a novel, The Scorpions, and published a liturgy – that one could easily publish a half dozen selected editions, each of which presented a very different Kelly. Thus while the Kelly of Red Actions remains a man interested in the alternate wisdom traditions, the mysticism that was front & center in his early books is presented here as incidental.

My own interest in Kelly, as with Duncan, had more to do with measure than mysticism. To this day I have never quite understood why these two phenomena appear to be linked, inextricable. Sound, it has always struck me, is an ideal antidote as an organizing & motive principle for the poem to the shallow surfaces of an unreflective dramatic monologue. Among the many poets that Kelly is & has been, is a superb practitioner of melopoiea.

The poem that follows “First in an Alphabet of Sacred Animals,” “Smith Cove Meditation,” has a title reminiscent of Olson, but the text is closer kin to Gertrude Stein. It begins:

Across the tone there is the one.
Everything is easier if there are women in it
but past the tone    there is the bone,
inside the bone there is the one.

One & bone; one times bone is bone, one bone.
One & bone are tone. Going across
is taking them away
from each other. Orphan bone,
widowed one.    Up on the hill
a widow lives, nurturing the tone.
Her son the bone. From their garden

on an August afternoon
you can see the one out on the water
all the waves & all the town’s streets
all the bright places & far
people, o some of them are gone,
gone to bone & gone to one, fallen
the castle of the bone, fallen the castle
of the enduring tone, the one
is over the harbor.

Every plausible combination of “o” & “n” is brought to bear – one can almost feel the deeper resonance of “afternoon” the way one might individual notes of a carillon. One might here argue that the “tone” of this poem is the selfsame “mantram” Kelly writes of in the “Prefix” to Measure, and while it is a radically different music than the rich alternation of consonant & vowel in the description of the blackbird, what it demonstrates precisely is Kelly’s to the poem of sound.
Right around 1970, a number of different events occurred that would transform the role sound played in poetry socially. Olson’s death in January of that year, followed a year later by Blackburn, shut the door on any hard-edged conception of speech as the prosodic determinant of poetic form. Already Creeley had moved toward a more relaxed notion of same in his 1968 volume Pieces, the potentially contradictory influences of Ted Berrigan & Louis Zukofsky combining to soften the tone of its linked sequences. When, in early 1971, Robert Grenier declared “I HATE SPEECH,” in the first issue of This, he was already jousting with an opponent that had largely abandoned the field.

Similarly, Duncan’s decision to not publish another book for 15 years after his 1968 Bending the Bow muted his enormous influence on younger poets. Combined with Olson’s & Blackburn’s absence & Creeley’s shift, Duncan’s step away from the scene transformed the role of sound in the poem – so prominent a feature in poetry for twenty years – into something of a non-issue in the 1970s.

But if This magazine’s first issue proved functionally to be announcement of this shift in poetics, it was Robert Kelly who had the literal first word:

If this were the place to begin
is not,

starts with the disk-sun-boat – a journey
we can share,
                           a precise
boatGokstad, not metaphor –
to our own country
                                    following the line
of tensions between the heard & the hard

facts of the world,
                                 perception.  Stanza
of particulars.
                          Lamplight half led
onto my book & half  held back –
afraid of the white page

My confession.  The pale blue asters
with dark hearts
are everywhere these days.
It begins to rain.

It is possible, even probable, that Kelly and the editors of This meant different things by putting this poem first in This 1. As so often in Kelly, the evocation of “particulars” – in this instance the Viking vessel Gokstad – is something unlikely to be shared by many readers, serving less as a point of reference than as a demarcation between those in the know & those outside. It’s in keeping with Kelly’s own long interest in alternative systems of knowledge, and in the poet as shaman or priest. But, with the principle exceptions of Fanny Howe, John Taggart and Nate Mackey, an aspect of poetry that has been far less visible in the three decades since. Thus, when the Apex of the M gang were proposing, nearly ten years ago now, that langpo had short shrifted the Gnostic, they came within a hair’s breadth of identifying what I actually suspect could have started the very revolution in poetics of which they were dreaming, the flip side of the measure/mysticism coin. The poem as sound, as measure & song as much as speech, let alone the narrow gargling of the sound poets.

& if such a poetics is again possible, or even plausible, reading Kelly & these great books is the necessary way back in.

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Sunday, December 01, 2002

Although I knew his work slightly from his own A Controversy of Poets, I hadn’t focused on Robert Kelly’s poetry until I got to know some of his former Bard students: David Perry*, John Gorham and Harvey Bialy, and through them Tom Meyer. All spoke glowingly of Kelly as a teacher. But it wasn’t until I got hold of a copy of Finding the Measure (Black Sparrow, 1968) that Kelly’s poetry forced me to pay attention. The volume’s preface – or as Kelly titles it, complete with open-ended parenthesis, “(prefix:” – is one of the knockdown finest statements of a poetics I’ve ever read. Even today, 35 years after it was written, it stands up:

Finding the measure is finding the mantram,
is finding the moon, as index of measure,
is finding the moon’s source;

                                                     if that source
is Sun, finding the measure is finding
the natural articulation of ideas.

                                                            The organism
of the macrocosm, the organism of language,
the organism of I combine in ceaseless naturing
to propagate a fourth,
                                        the poem,
                                                            from their trinity.

Style is death. Find the measure is finding
a freedom from that death, a way out, a movement

                Finding the measure is finding the
specific music of the hour,
                                                the synchronous
consequences of the motion of the whole world.

Style is death. Derrida would have a field day with that, coming as it does in the work of someone for whom measure – the line & phrase heard as units at once both of music & of meaning – is the compelling issue. What does Kelly mean to make so bald a claim?

The answer of course is to be found first in Kelly’s assertion that there is such a thing as a “natural articulation of ideas,” followed by his trinity of organisms. The idea of “natural articulation,” may follow out of the old Imagist maxim that “a new cadence means a new idea,” but Kelly weds it very much to an organic vision not only of the poem but of all existence.

It’s interesting to map Kelly’s trinity over, say, Jakobson’s six functions of language. As I’ve written here before, I always think of Jakobson’s model as three axes, or as pairs of opposites: addresser, address; contact, code; signifier, signified. Kelly’s trinity does fall neatly into those three pairs, especially if one goes back to Jakobson’s own discussions of the signified as ultimately contextual, much broader than the notion of an object for every noun – Kelly calls it the “organism / of the macrocosm.”

What Kelly describes as three axes “ceaselessly naturing” to pop out a poem rather the way a hen does eggs is the grounds for any articulation, not just verse. Is Kelly arguing after a fashion that it is this particular configuration of these possibilities that lead to the poem? Perhaps, but more important is the way in which this text privileges the “I” with italics only to deny its force one stanza later with “Style is death.” But of course that kind of equation can work both ways: Death is style might be even more accurate. Phrased thus, we can see that Kelly is trying very hard to separate out the “I” of consciousness from a second “I,” the superego really, that would impose its understanding of tradition & history encoded through a process that keeps the word from somehow coming through directly. 

That distinction takes me back to the seemingly self-canceling phrase, “natural articulation.” Such a concept implies a universe in which articulation would be unmediated & inevitable. Not simply that the flower of my sermon should be its own message, but that nature itself is just such an ultimate discourse. But Kelly’s phrase continues: “natural articulation of ideas.” Thus ideas themselves must exist both prior to & outside of any embodiment in words.

If the lion could speak we would have to write it down.** Kelly is aligning the poem here with a discourse that is, literally, inhuman – though not necessarily anti-human. Rather it exists prior to & outside of our merely secular discursive behaviors. The mantram of the first line is, if we follow this logic, a subliminal hum within the universe. The role for poet is not to alter or direct that energy so much as to enable it to come through revealed.

All of which, I would argue, takes us back to the question in this poem of the moon. It is not only that “Finding the measure is finding the mantram,” but that it is also “finding the moon, as index of measure, / is finding the moon’s source.” The question of the moon, its relation to Sun (the absence of article here marking as more than a little like an Egyptian god) & that mysterious idea of “source” traces the other thematic thread that weaves through this text. Read strictly, the entire line of reasoning about the trinity of organisms should apply only if Sun is understood as “source” for the moon. Moon of course being a loaded term for a poet who has already published a volume of short poems called Lunes.

On the one hand, the attributes of the tides & their impact on any number of worldly phenomena is certainly present, but at a level of obviousness that makes it a So What. Ditto the question of gravity from earth to moon or vice versa & of sun to either. At a more significant level, though, I don’t think this image is decidable except insofar as it pins the question of articulation up into a cosmology of effects. The poem resonates exactly as something that cannot be reduced to an argument, a good test of any poem.

* Not the same David Perry who is now active in poetry around New York, whom I think of as the “Adventures in Poetry” David Perry in order to keep them straight in my head.

** As indeed Michael McClure already has.

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