Saturday, January 04, 2003
Christian Bök’s String Variables is one of those initially deceptive projects in that you begin to read the two minuscule chapbooks On and Off that are gathered together (with a band of paper, not string, alas) in this micropress project, a press run of 60 copies issued jointly as openpalmseries 2.5 & 2.6 and umlaut machine nos. 6 & 7, & it is only when, starting the second volume – I read On before I did Off, although I would wager that this effect will work just as well if the little volumes are read in the opposite order – you begin to recognize the uncanny similarities. Here is the first page of On:
semantic or epic
I clemecy sty
And here is roughly the same
man cyst yes per
rib leprosy stem
erratic or rid
of a mouse
Letter by letter, these two
texts are all but identical, so much so that I will wager (this seems to be a
betting blog) that “clemecy” in On is in fact a typo and should
read “clemancy,” even though the latter is itself a
Like Eunoia, Bök’s book of aggressive vowel constraints, String Variables is both a written work that is fun to read aloud & the result of an almost unimaginably rigorous formal process – he is clearly the master of post-Oulipo poetics. Technically speaking, String Variables is a misnomer for the process by which this work must have been composed. In programming, the little I understand of it, you have both variables & constants – no great theoretical problem there – either of which might be composed of numeric data or of “strings,” in which numeric data can be joined with alphabetic and other symbols. So we have strings here alright, but it is only the spaces & linebreaks that vary. (Thus the paradigm On/Off refers to the states of electrical current that are then translated into a binary system to generate all such information.)
Works like Eunoia and String Variables envision a model of language that no
traditionally-educated linguist would recognize – they wouldn’t recognize Finnegans Wake either – a model in which letters,
not phonemes, organize language. String
Variables almost looks as if one could simply take a great block of type
and divide it into clusters and – Voila! –
words & phrases would just “naturally” appear. The
reality of course is infinitely more complex & part of Bök’s genius lies
precisely in making it look so deceptively easy. While Bök’s work fits into the
larger context of
Friday, January 03, 2003
Lyn Hejinian has offered the readers of My Life a unique look into the compositional strategies of the project by publishing two different booklength versions. The first, published by Burning Deck in 1980, includes 37 paragraphs of 37 sentences each. The second, published by Sun & Moon in 1987, offers 45 paragraphs of 45 sentences each. Thus, in addition to adding eight new paragraphs, one for each of the intervening years of the project, Hejinian also added eight sentences to each of the existing paragraph of the first version. Hejinian also appears to have made small additions to at least one existing sentence within each paragraph. Here is the seventh paragraph of the 1987 version, known by its epigram “Like plump birds along the shore,” with material new to this version printed in boldface:
were spent in a fog that rains. They
were mirages, no different from those that camelback riders approach in the factual
accounts of voyages in which I persistently imagined myself, and those mirages
on the highway were for me both impalpable souvenirs and unmistakable evidence
of my own adventures, now slightly less vicarious than before. The person too
I know of no other poet of my generation – & perhaps only Jennifer Moxley from among younger writers – who could write a phrase such as “vanishing vernal day.” This is just one of dozens of small, almost intimate details in this paragraph alone that render Hejinian unmistakable as a poet, & which together account for the passionate advocacy her poetry inspires.
What interests me here, first, is the absence of any formal system for the incorporation of new material into the piece. Six of the eight new sentences in this seventh section are introduced in pairs – in the book’s first paragraph, however, there was just one pair, plus another group of three clustered together, while in the eighth paragraph, all new sentences appear by themselves, singletons of new data & context. And of course, after the 37th paragraph, all additional paragraphs can contain only new writing.
In the seventh paragraph,
the new material transforms the section’s beginning and end, but makes
relatively modest interventions during the main body of the
Three sentences can be read as alluding to the phenomena of heat-based mirages rising up of the pavement:
§ The explicit new second sentence of the paragraph, which sets up the structure for the image schema – the length & detail of this sentence are necessary if the paragraph is to intelligibly re-invoke this construct later with shorter, more brief sentences
§ A sentence one-quarter of the way through the paragraph that reverses the point-of-view, focusing instead on how the narrator is “hypnotized” by the waves of the mirage
§ The final sentence in the paragraph, a moment of closure radically different from the 1980 homily
A fourth sentence is also plausible if one incorporates “The sky droops straight down” into this same image schema. Thus a point of reference that was not even hinted at in the 1980 version of the paragraph becomes the controlling image schema for its 1987 incarnation. This transformation is not insignificant. The nature of this paragraph has not been “updated,” but completely re-envisioned by the process. The frame of late ‘40s radio dramas – which then models the role given over to family stories in the 1980 version of the poem is far less of a master paradigm for the paragraph, replaced in fact by the presence of mirages. While its own juxtaposition to family narratives has not changed in the slightest, its position overall within the paragraph redefines the meaning of that juxtaposition.
There are, of course, several other things going on here, more or less at the same time. Two of the eight new sentences – “lobes of autobiography” & the question “Are we likely to find ourselves” – function as metacommentary on the process of My Life itself. The sentence concerning “small fork-stemmed boats” can be read – although I’m suspicious of this as the scale seems wrong – as related to the narrative of childhood engineering, damming the gutters, that is constructed via several sentences of the 1980 version of this paragraph.
Also of considerable
interest to me are the two words now added to the final phrase of what had originally
been the seventh sentence: “without rift.” I think
that it is possible to interpret that sentence in just that way, so that these
words add relatively little to what has already been written. But it is also
possible, or at least was in 1980, to see in that image of the child the twin
masks of theater – comedy & tragedy – which then allude back again to the
image of “radio nights.” Here again, Hejinian’s intervention mutes or thwarts
that reading – it’s a different
Both versions of My Life are remarkable works, although I have a personal bias toward the earlier version that is really an allegiance to the intensity of my first full reading of it on an airplane. Potentially, a project of this sort is infinite in the sense that it never need end so long as the poet herself continues to live & write. Hejinian did continue the actual process for some time after the release of the Sun & Moon edition, although no later version has been published.
Thursday, January 02, 2003
Some works appear destined to change one’s mind.
It took me several months to get around to reading Lyn Hejinian’s My Life when it was first published by Burning Deck in 1980 because my initial reaction thumbing through the small volume was negative. It felt far too much to me like gazing into a mirror – as though Hejinian had dutifully plagiarized my own approach to the new sentence from Ketjak, perhaps with less use of found materials, using My Life’s outer structural elements of one paragraph for every year in this unusual autobiography & one sentence for every paragraph – thus 37 paragraphs each containing 37 sentences – to construct a work that looked different, but which really differed principally through an uncritical approach to the question of autobiography.
This wasn’t the first time I’d had a less-than-positive initial reaction to Hejinian’s writing only to revise my opinion completely soon thereafter. When, sometime in the early 1970s, Occurrence editor John Wilson first had Hejinian send me a packet of writing, I’d recognized instantly the strong sense of style, but had felt that it sought out lushness for its own sake – and I wrote her pretty bluntly to say so. When I got back a letter that took my grumpy misreading seriously but didn’t back off from her aesthetic commitments, I realized I was “misunderestimating” her indeed. As I was aware that I had had similar responses at first to other poets whose work later became exceptionally important to me – Clark Coolidge would be a case in point – I decided to just hold off until I got a better sense of things. This was true of both her work initially and later of My Life.
It was through the poetry of another writer about whom I might make that same “lushness for its own sake” charge that I came to reassess Hejinian’s approach to poetry generally – Ken Irby. The fourth issue of Hejinian’s chapbook series, the original Tuumba Press project, was Irby’s Archipelago, published (it says on its intensely blue cover) in November 1976. One month earlier, however, I’d run into Hejinian operating a stall at a small press fair at San Francisco’s Fort Mason, with this book front & center on her table. Irby is nothing if not a poet of the ear, perhaps the purest example of this of this obvious possibility within Projectivist poetics, and he’s something of an acquired taste. By 1976, I’d been a serious Irby aficionado for over a decade & felt at times (as I still do) as though I were a member of some secret society: The Serious Readers of Kenneth Irby.
On the spot, Hejinian & I got deeply into a wonderful conversation about Irby’s poetry & realized who each other was – I mumbled some sort of apology over my intemperate response to her material (which, as I recall, she deflected, saying that it was entirely unnecessary, a judgment more generous than true). Relatively soon after, Hejinian & her partner (now husband) Larry Ochs moved south from Willits to Berkeley & I got to know both them as two of the most probing, inventive, talented & imaginative people on the planet. Each of her first four books – A Thought is the Bride of What Thinking; A Mask of Motion; Gesualdo; & Writing is an Aid to Memory – had been so utterly different that I believed I could not, in fact, prejudge this one on a thumb-through. So when I didn’t immediately respond well to My Life, my reaction was to set aside until some time when I could look at it again with fresh eyes.
That opportunity came on a
transcontinental flight back from the East Coast to
My Life was not, in fact, the book I’d expected (or dreaded) at all. Where Ketjak is very much an outward facing text, My Life operates by facing (as would any memoir) backwards. This focus transforms the project entirely. Where Ketjak uses repetition to make “the new sentence” possible, by literally breaking apart the residual narrative instincts in my work, My Life proceeds by simply assuming the new sentence as a given & using repetition thematically, both within the body of the text proper and in the epigrams that head up every paragraph. Where the structure of Ketjak is accumulative and essentially musical in its movements, My Life functions as a series of compositions all roughly equal in size – there is a logic (a narrative dimension that is only half hidden) both within & between paragraphs. The requirement of composing such structural equivalents – their formalism is reminiscent of a sonnet sequence, although, in the 1980 edition, of 37-sentence prose sonnets – places enormous compositional demands on Hejinian, which she moves through with a sweep & grace that is stunning, one jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring turn after another. Even for someone thoroughly knowledgeable as to the implications of langpo in 1981, someone who had in fact read all of Hejinian’s earlier volumes, My Life is one of those reading experiences that very thoroughly cleaves the world into before & after.
Labels: Lyn Hejinian
Wednesday, January 01, 2003
Murat Nemet-Nejat suggests two complicating factors for the question of context – the reader’s contribution and the issue of what he characterizes as divided loyalties:
I just read Gary [Sullivan]'s observations on "context" and Jonathan Swift for the first time. Since Swift – particularly "A Modest Proposal" and "A Tale of the Tub" - had a strong effect on my prose writing, and my views on context relate to my reading of Swift, I would like to chip in.
Context can also be tackled from the reader's point of view, his or her historical moment, which makes him or her read, misread, reimagine, etc., that text. This is not a matter of personal taste or subjectivity, but a dynamic between two historical moments. In this way context is not seen temporally or historically, but as a fluid continuum, constantly changing.
The originating occasion of "A Modest Proposal" was the Irish famine. But as important to me was that Swift was a man of "divided loyalties," an Irishman making his fortunes in the English capital. Is it possible that the ambiguity
As a writer, I am very interested in the questions of accent, of divided loyalty in our time. Am I merely misreading Swift, or out of my historical moment I am seeing a deeper context in Swift's work?
Purely as a writer, what I find striking in "A Modest Proposal" is how, following the structures, "logic" of the English enlightenment (of whom Samuel Johnson, a hater and despiser of the Irish, is the "purest" example), Swift creates a counter-text, a mad text, a parody and self parody. Is this not the essence of what experiment in poetry is? Is that not what, for example, the Bernstein's poem which you mention does?
My best. Happy new year.
Tuesday, December 31, 2002
Waking this morning at 6:00 to write three pages of Zyxt, the last section of The Alphabet, out in the notebook – it will probably translate down into a single page of typescript when I get to that – leaves me drained, exhausted. The process only took an hour, maybe 45 minutes, once I subtract the time it took to rise, brush my teeth & shuffle downstairs.
I began with a sentence
describing a scene from a dream, not one I had last night, but rather the night
before, that was still nagging at me. I had described the dream yesterday
Perhaps because of all the blogging I’ve done of late, I was paying attention in the back of my mind as I worked as to why I was placing this or that sentence into the specific sequence as I did, recalling Chris Stroffolino’s words about the nature of meaning, thinking (quite vaguely, I must admit) that I was after what I could only call – at least at this close proximity –a music of emotions I had some sense of attempting to orchestrate.
When I initially write (or, as I often think of it, “collect”) sentences that I might use in work, the process often feels pretty casual – there is, after all, no requirement that I actually use one if later it doesn’t feel right or I can’t find the appropriate position for it in my work. Often such sentences are things I’ve heard, or (more often) variations on things I’ve heard. I can collect these sentences in the middle of business meetings without losing the thread of discussion & have even composed in the middle of eye surgery. But the process seldom has the “feeling tone” of writing, as such.
Putting sentences together, on the other hand, is heavy lifting, an exceptionally intense process that I can’t do every day – unless of course I have set up some system to enable that (the exact same system I’m using these days for the blog). Which is why, when I was asked/told by that questioner earlier this year that my work was all revision, it did not ring true. No, this putting together is for me the true act of writing. Everything else is adjunct.
I chose the 23 sentences I ended up using from the oldest of my collection of “raw” material – going through maybe one-third of the total group at least casually before I honed in on the ones I wanted to use. One sentence that I’d initially thought to use, I held back – it comes to close to the territory of the dream and would make more sense to me to put it into Zyxt later, when it will serve not only all of its internal functions & whatever other local ones I decide that I want it to play, but also to harken back to this particular instance of the dream. Yet that sentence deferred is itself perhaps six months old & could easily be another six months older before it gets used.
Of the 23 collected sentences, I made changes in no more than six in incorporating them here. Most were minor corrections – and awkward phrasing or a missing word – but in one I added a single word that I’d not thought of previously that made the sentence suddenly lock into the “music of emotions” I was after. That one word made me feel enormously happy – it proved as important as the raw sentence itself – which was interesting in part because this is a relatively somber moment in the work and I was able to work on that while experiencing a very different sense toward the writing itself.
Monday, December 30, 2002
Sometime today, this blog will greet its 10,000th visitor. For a genre like poetry in which a turnout of 50 people to a reading is considered a smashing success, this seems remarkable.
2002 will be remembered as the Year of the Blog because, if for no other reason, political bloggers (especially Josh Marshall) were the ones who first noticed & broadcast Trent Lott’s outrageous comments at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party, which led ultimately to his resignation as President of the Senate. As the blogging phenomenon expands to a point where there are now just under one million blogs worldwide – three other members of my own extended family have blogs – it makes sense that some will focus on poetry & poetics.
When I started at the very
end of August, there were relatively few weblogs with any sort of announced
focus around poetry, most notably Brian Kim Stefans' Free Space Comix &
Since September, quite a number of poetry-centric blogs have started up, some of them really excellent. Here is a list of the blogs that I check at the very least a few times each week.
Blogging has even become slightly controversial on the Poetics List. Some people there seem to think that critical discourse has to follow an either/or model of communication, whereas it seems to me quite obvious to a both/and system in much the same way that both the poetry reading and the poetry book have concrete value for poetry. Blogging seems no more of a threat to listserv discussions than it does to the academy itself.
The blog as diary seems to me of little interest. But blogging as a form of intellectual discipline has great value. I’ve thought more concretely than I otherwise could have about any number of issues over the past four months as a result of this blog. I’ve increased my own reading, and gone in some directions that I would not have otherwise taken. There are some poets whose work I might only have glanced at – Joseph Massey & Richard Deming, for example – without the discipline of the blog. And others whose contributions I might not have thought through nearly as thoroughly as I have – George Stanley, for instance, or Jennifer Moxley. Many of the emails & other communications I’ve received as a result of various blogs have been enormously instructive.
These thoughts occur to me as 2003 approaches concerning blogging and poetry:
§ The number of poetry-centered blogs can only grow and, as it does, the audience for any given approach to such blogs will be forced, simply by the limits of time & attention, to divide. Thus are tendencies born. It will be interesting to see what the terrain looks like one year from now.
§ To date, most if not all poetry-related blogs have come out of the broad spectrum of post-avant literary traditions. This may be because such writing has a critical tradition that is not only an adjunct of the process of tenure.
§ One visible gap to date with regards to poetry blogs appears to be that very old one: gender. Of the eleven blogs listed above, nine are by men. I don’t see any inherent reasons for this gap, although I wouldn’t want to underestimate the number and kinds of distractions & responsibilities with which women in today’s society must contend. But the form itself would seem to have several real advantages that might prove attractive to women, the ability to bypass male editors being only one.
Sunday, December 29, 2002
It was a bad dream that we were at war. I was involved with a company that held some support function, not involved directly in the fighting. But then I was near the front lines at night, crouching in a field of stones near barbed-wire. To our left were some buildings. Behind me, “our side” sent missiles into the distance – explosions briefly illumined the horizon. The “other side” sent their missiles in our direction. We watched them sail overhead, some further, some closer. Then I remember watching one the way, as a boy, I would watch a fly ball coming in my own direction, aware of just how little time remained before it arrived, realizing it would be very close, so close that I could not tell which way to duck. Something struck me at the base of my neck. “I’m hit!” I shouted. But there was no damage. I can still move. There’s no blood, no pain.
Then a large airplane appeared overhead. “There they are,” someone shouted, as though we’d expected this. The plane’s belly opened and a missile rocketed down into the complex of buildings just on the far side of the barbed wire. An explosion went up on its far side. In its windows now, I could see a young man in his twenties, surrounded by small children. Their aspect looked “vaguely Asian.” He opened the window to let some of the smoke billow out. “Get out” I yelled as did the others I heard around me. “No,” he hollered in return. Then the fire reached a flashpoint & they all disappeared.
I woke, feeling ragged after
a night such as that, & went down to my study. At first, I read through the
latest issue of
What I read this early in
the morning is a “lecture” by Bob Ellis on “The Age of Spin,” focusing on
Australia’s culpability in the broader, US-led assault of Islamic peoples, on
the use of such terms as “weapons of mass destruction” and the convenient ways
in which we defined them, or “chemical weapons” & the relationship of that
concept, say, to the cocktail
His essay reminds me of my
dream, or of the sour way I characterized the Bush
I thumb through the
So, looking for respite, I pick up Niedecker’s Collected Works & find myself immediately at this juncture:
J.F. Kennedy after the
To stand up
not snapped by the storm
“I’ve been duped by the experts”
– and walk
the South Lawn
Thirty-odd years later, there is still debate as to whether or not Kennedy was, in fact, “duped by the experts” – the implications concerning his hold on the executive branch are, after all, damning – or merely used this explanation to distance himself from the political fallout that attended the Bay of Pigs fiasco. So here is Niedecker using a natural image – the tulip – as a metaphor for political activity.
But I don’t think of Niedecker as a “political poet,” and on the facing page starts one of her longest poems, “Wintergreen Ridge,” which includes an account of a visit from Basil Bunting:
by the poet
I neglected to ask
what wild plants
have you there
Well I see at this point
no pelting of police
There is no escaping it.* Even a poet as removed from the daily life of cities as Niedecker, Objectivism’s one true “poet of the bush,” cannot get away from the politics of the 1960s as they enveloped the nation. Any more than we can the misdeeds of our own “elected” officials at the cusp of 2003.
* “What Western peoples might find strange, Kawhlānī tribesmen taken for granted, namely, that politics and poetics are inseparable.” Stephen C. Caton, in “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemini Tribe (University of California Press, 1990): p. 155.