Saturday, May 31, 2003
A copy of Cid Corman’s translation of Things, which includes “Notebook of the Pine Woods,” is on its way to me at this very moment. Thanks to the folks who pointed me in the right direction, especially Joseph Massey.
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Attempting to find the form of the carnation in language is an interesting, inherently problematic proposition. Part of what I like about Francis Ponge is that, unlike Ronald Johnson, the American with the closest sense of “found form,” Ponge prefers the non-human & quotidian. Where Johnson’s models include arks & spires, Ponge turns instead to bars of soap, flowers such as the carnation or the lowly asparagus. It’s not as though Johnson’s models are symmetrical & Ponge’s not, but rather that Johnson’s models foreground their symbolic capital, while Ponge’s are less direct even when, as in the instance of soap immediately after the end of World War 2, an unstated symbolism proves no less powerful.
Ponge's expression of the form of the carnation is worth noting, at least as it comes through Lee Fahnestock's translation. The part of the flower that is most visibly replicated in the poem is the flower's frilly nature, which comes out through the deployment of words that are not common in contemporary poetry: dentate, denticulate, jabot, magondo, sternutatory. I can't even find a reasonable source for magondo, a word that shows up as a place name in some South African countries and also as a surname, but which is also one type of short-finned porpoise. Sternutatory — causing one to sneeze — and jabot (a word women will recognize, but men are not apt to unless they are given to wearing tuxedos with some regularity) — a frilly front to a blouse or shirt — suggest that these words are not accidents of translation.
The other aspect of Ponge's interest in the carnation worth noting is that the poet is hypersensitive to the possible roles of violence in the plant's life — not simply the potential to be pulled up by its roots, but even in its excessive (to Ponge's eye) sense of frill & presentation of allergens. This passage is as over-the-top as it gets:
Throng pour out of communion in a delta
lacy white underpants of a young girl
who looks to her linens
Constantly giving off a sort of perfume
That almost — such pleasure — brings on a sneeze
Trumpets gorged mouths filled
With the redundance of their own expression
Throats entirely gorged by tongues
Their petals their lips torn
By the violence of their cries of their expressions
Puckered creased crimped crushed
Fringed festooned flogged
Rumpled curled cockled
Quilled waffled waved
Slashed ripped pleated tattered
Flounced whorled undulated denticulated
This isn't the sense of violence one might get from the television documentarian who films a stop-time version of a flower bursting through the soil, but it's not unrelated either. One wonders what Ponge might have done had he had more of contemporary sense of the way ecologies are transformed by the invasion of non-native species (viz. the eucalyptus in California), or the way in which humans intervene in nature (genetically modified foods would have been a great topic for him) — it's not just that broccoli is named for the man who first joined cauliflower to a green leafed kin — some variant of kale — even corn can be understood as a human invention.
But even as Ponge's piece incorporates elements of the carnation, it does not — in fact, I think it rather openly rejects — the idea of simply creating a carnation-like literary work. For the most part, this prose poem like so many others by Ponge, reads like a surrealist's notebook with the meditational, even discursive aspect of the notebook very much in the foreground. Sections like the one above are brought into the text, but never in a way that proposes to "naturalize" them.
Friday, May 30, 2003
Do any readers know where I
might be able to get a copy of an English translation of Francis Ponge’s Notebook of the Pine Woods? I had a copy
at one time that I bought used decades ago from Green Apple Books in
Actually, I’ve known about
this disappearance for several years – it happened before I left
For the most part, Americans were introduced to the prose poem by Robert Bly in his publications The Fifties and The Sixties, and by George Hitchcock in his own journal of that same period, Kayak, in ways that very much codified the prose poem as practiced especially by that most surreal of Benedictine monks, Max Jacob. Bly’s intervention came at a time when the only alternative French poetic prose in print in English translation belonged to St.-John Perse, championed by T.S. Eliot, by then an arch-conservative. The most prolific English-language writer of prose poetry, Gertrude Stein, had been dead since 1946, & her influence during this same period was at its absolute nadir, her memory kept alive beyond her role as bon vivant & art collector almost entirely by Robert Duncan & Jerome Rothenberg. Thus, it was really only when Nathaniel Tarn published first Ponge’s Soap & Victor Segalen’s Stele in the Grossman/Cape Goliard series at the every end of the 1960s that poets in America could see that Stein’s Tender Buttons & Williams’ Kora in Hell: Improvisations were not, in fact, flukes and that what was possible as prose poetry stretched the gamut of the imagination. The leap from that moment to Ashbery’s Three Poems, Creeley’s A Day Book & Mabel, and Clark Coolidge’s first ventures into prose can be counted almost in hours, rather than months or years.
Notebook, which I haven’t read in perhaps 20 years, is not a prose poem in the sense, say, of Soap, nor of the works translated into English by Serge Gavronsky as The Power of Language and The Sun Placed in the Abyss, nor by Beth Archer in The Voice of Things. Notebook documents a period during which Ponge, an active member of the Resistance who was being hunted by the Nazis & the Vichy French regime, took refuge in a cabin in a pine woods and, while there, proceeded to imagine what it might be like to write a perfect poem, which I recall (perhaps imperfectly) to be a sonnet. In the Notebook he writes the work over & over & over, carefully documenting the most minute changes until it becomes evident that a “perfect” poem can exist only as an idea, that a text is a thing that could be refined forever without ever getting to an “ultimate” core.
It’s difficult thinking, let
alone writing, about a text that exists solely as memory & which one could
read only in translation even if one could obtain a copy. The two copies I have
been able to locate are (a) the original 1947 French edition & (b) in rare
It was the first piece in Vegetation, a text Fahnestock translates as “The Carnation” – it’s an awkward tho probably unavoidable choice since Ponge actively plays with the letters of the French œillet – that made me long so for Notebook. Although Fahnestock credits Ponge’s 1976 La rage de l’expression for the poem, the text was composed between 1941 & ’44, roughly the same period as Notebook, & was originally published in a small edition in 1946, entitled L’œillet – La Guêpe – Le Mimosas.
In this nine page meditation, Ponge seeks not so much to represent the flower in the poem as to bring out certain qualities that are unique to the plant, that might be considered its contribution to form & to thinking. This is precisely the investigative tone that Ponge takes in all of his signature works. It is also the inhuman – I mean that term literally – quality that Ponge seeks in form, which is why Archer’s inept anthropomorphizing, such as her title The Voice of Things (a more literal version would have read Taking the Part of Things), does such violence to Ponge’s work. While I think it’s relatively hard to get a good bead on what Ponge was seeking by adopting the investigative mode – we’ve seen the figure of the researcher comically transformed not just by such pataphysical interventions as the Toronto Research Group, but by the academy itself in recent decades – the idea of poetry as a mechanism for exploring & recognizing the forms of the world (rather than merely superimposing the cookie-cutter patterns of poetry onto the world) remains largely unexplored in American poetry outside of Ronald Johnson’s ARK. While it seems easy enough to imagine this mode in debased forms – think of a Jules Feiffer comic-strip dancer performing a “dance to spring” – Ponge, in Soap, Vegetation & elsewhere makes it evident that there is a perfectly serious side to this question yet to fully fathomed.
Wednesday, May 28, 2003
One of the advantages of bird watching as an activity is that the process organizes one’s experience of any given hike, yet does so in such a fashion that two walks literally down the same path will be appreciably different. The supposedly stable elements of the walk – foliage, ponds, trails – now are seen primarily as a background context for a more variable &, to a birder, exciting element. Outlining, David Pavelich’s new chapbook from Cuneiform Press, has some similarities to a bird walk in that these short texts – seven in all, with none over seven lines long – have in fact been stripped down literally to the level suggested by the title, such as:
in exchange of profile
unshared span, shading
in settling down
Or the following, which may very well be, at some level, “about birds”:
of crest and down
of step, of flight, of pattern
in nest differentiate
point – but no specific
series – but no specific
In much the way that Jackson Pollock’s painting might be viewed as being “about brush strokes” or the way Ellsworth Kelly’s are about shape, Pavelich’s poems articulate the process of the poem while giving away only a minimum of its “context,” as Roman Jakobson characterized the realm referenced by any given statement. In this sense, they are direct descendants of the poems by Zukofsky or Creeley that literally count out the positions within the text:
Or, also from Pieces,
Pavelich’s pieces aren’t as strict in their sense of redaction, but rather – as in the first piece – want the reader to hear & feel the pace of the language, the space of that extra wide line break between the unfinished tercet & that final partial line. The shift in the second piece – I read it as first stanza birding, second stanza poem – makes not only a specific point, but does so with a humor that is interested in testing its own gentleness. I wonder, in today’s poetry, just how many readers will be able to hear that, but I do and am very glad to have found it.
Cuneiform Press does gorgeous work, but
in very limited runs. This book is so beautiful that it borders on the obscene.
Though I would not have complained at a heavier weight paper
stock. There are just 100 copies. Pavelich I believe – I don’t know the
man – is somewhere in
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No blog mañana. I will be traveling on business.
Tuesday, May 27, 2003
Imagine Billy Crystal doing his Ricardo Montalban impression for a one-sentence review: “This book is wanderful, dahling!” This book, of course, being Wanders, a cycle of poems written in ping-pong fashion by Robin Blaser & Meredith Quartermain & published by Quartermain’s Nomados Press. Quartermain, in a preface to the volume, refers to them as parallelograms. Blaser would fax a poem to Quartermain, who would respond following “the stress patterns and numbers of syllables per line.”
Here is a Blaser poem, complete:
“like money in the gutter,” David said.
That was the best of luck,
pink petals stuck to the car’s
tires, noted when we parked
near Dead Write Books
and the intense blue shirt
I wanted turned up.
a banner on a book in the window
read “exciting as John Le Carré,”
rushed to the door, but Dead Write
Books was shut. “,” I said
And here is Quartermain’s reply or “translation”:
a magpie in a rule of thumb
back to the beast of time,
fleet fingers hang till the next
lapse, tempoed by the talk
of dark bronze space
and the just now melt
it echoed tout de suite,
a tiding from the tide in the crystal
read “outspreading” as philharmonic
rings in a pool, and dark bronze
space resounds, passing ships to gape
The nerve endings in my brain tingle at all the little connections made in pieces like these – I will be contemplating the reiterated bronze space as well as chuckling at the droll “exciting as John Le Carré” comment for some time. (Heaven help the poor author to whom that faint praise was given.) The poems don’t reproduce one another, nor do they necessarily carry forward themes – the “beast of time” remark is something of an anomaly in this sequence in that regard – so much as demonstrate the absolute range of what might be possible following the relatively simple rules of the project.*
These are, for both writers, remarkably playful works and it seems to me a major achievement for Blaser to have, at this point in a long & fabulous career, shown what really strikes me as an entirely new side of himself as a writer. I’ve tried to think of another first generation New American Poet who has shown that capacity for ludic collaboration. I know, from having participated in some of these sessions, that Phil Whalen & Michael McClure could do so through improvised music, but you don’t particularly see it in the written works themselves. Ashbery & Schuyler’s collaborative novel comes closer in print, and maybe some of Ginsberg’s musical ventures or – am I stretching it here? – in Spicer’s aggressively active collaboration with the long dead Lorca. But this is a Blaser who might have shared bean spasms with Ted Berrigan. It’s an amazing, even jaw dropping performance:
my piano collapsed into
a bonfire and wept – I’m
young again return
to the curriculum – how
to open a bank account
I don’t think that any New American has done something so radically different from their previously published work since Ashbery published Flow Chart in 1991.
If all she had done was to
evoke this new effusion from Robin Blaser, Meredith Quartermain would have
earned a permanent place in the history of our hearts. But her poems absolutely
stand up to the challenge of Blaser’s own. And he does what he can in places to
make the possibility of it damn difficult, throwing out multiple lines of
French, whose stresses & syllabification are as far from English as you can
dans l’expérience vécue
du Même, recalled
here in Nietzsche’s
Perhaps it’s her background as an attorney, but Quartermain never blinks as she returns the volley with every bit as much force & wit:
kind to the trance of state
for the cohere
one is zero’s
Poetry has a history as a
competitive sport that predates the evolution of the slam & it’s
fascinating to watch hints of this gaming flash across these twin texts. The
sum of it is totally exhilarating. There are, of course, elements of this
active in any two person collaboration, but, in general, it’s a dimension that
Lyn Hejinian & Leslie Scalapino – just to pick one example of a work I love
– don’t explore in Sight. Nor any North
American text-centric poets that I can recall – not even in the later revs of
* How might a post-Oulipudlian have pursued the same project? I can imagine a collaboration in which writer B (Quartermain in the present case) reproduced not merely the syllables & stress patterns of writer A, but also used the very same vowels, and in which writer A then replied by reproducing the same sequence of consonants, but with none of the same vowels, of writer B.
Monday, May 26, 2003
Before I wrote my piece on doubt Friday, Rob Stanton sent in this perspective, suggesting that the author’s & the reader’s relation to the text might not be symmetrical, so that each might involve a different sort of doubt.
Thanks for the excellent reading of Fanny Howe's poem 'Doubt' in your blog last week, and for reproducing Rodney Koeneke's similarly fine response on Monday. The discussion made me think of another 'essay poem' about doubt and poetry: Anne Carson's 'Essay on What I Think About Most' (from her collection Men in the Off Hours) - I don't know if you've come across it, or what you think of her work in general.
'Error' is the thing most on Carson's mind, but 'error' in the sense of a positive mental possibility - indeed, as (following Aristotle) the very basis for metaphor (and therefore poetry?) itself: 'Metaphors teach the mind//to enjoy error/and to learn/from the juxtaposition of 'what is' and 'what is not' the case.'
This made me wonder whether a different sort of 'doubt' exists between poet and poem during the writing process than between poem and reader once the poem is 'out in the world'. Isn't it true that, for the poet, a 'finished' poem (whether one takes a 'finished poem' to be something which has, in Yeats' too-smug phrase, 'clicked shut like a box', or, in Valéry's more honest take, been 'given up in despair') has gone beyond 'doubt' to some extent? Or, to put this another way, is the doubt which the poet may have felt over his of her 'inexact vocabulary', his or her willful 'errors', not now transferred over to the reader? As your close reading of Howe's more typical-seeming poem 'Again' on Tuesday shows, a poem can be formally complete ('the word again') and still full of questions, doubts, fears and 'bewilderment' for the reader. Of course, such success within the poem will not automatically mean that the poet him- or herself feels any more 'complete': as you sort of suggest, Spicer's eerie last words might relate to an all-too-precise or too 'knowing' vocabulary, rather than an 'inexact' one (he was, after all, a linguist).
I also wondered whether this distinction did not address,
to some extent, Koeneke's anxiety over whether 'doubt' invalidates any possible
political stance taken in the poem (or elsewhere). If a 'finished poem' - one
which has perhaps 'contained' the poet's doubt and errors - once published and
out in the world for people to look at, can generate 'doubt' in the reader, is
that not a political act? Keats himself, personally, did not expect an answer
to his question 'Do I wake or sleep?', but he probably hoped that Ode to a
Nightingale might make some readers think about their perceptions. (And, in an
example closer to home, the individual questions in your own Sunset Debris do not ask for individual
answers* - the piece as a whole surely ask a more 'overwhelming question' about
the power relationship between speaker and listener, writer and reader.) It may
be true, as
And talking of smugness: given that 'certainty engenders repose' (as Uncle Ez sez in Canto CIX.) - and who sane would want personal repose in the current world situation? - I certainly (!) agree with you that doubt is preferable, especially if it indicates 'healthy negative capability', 'held properly' as you say, rather than the sort of self-harming 'existential angst' Howe is writing about in Woolf and Weil or that dark political mirror of negative capability, Orwellian 'doublethink'.
(Another semi-random, grim and pedantic aside: doesn't Woolf's filling of her pockets with stones indicate an all-too-practical awareness of the substance of the body, and the need to weigh it down, as much as the actual act of suicide might represent a sloughing off of the body? Woolf was particularly worried at the time about another bout of mental (and therefore 'spiritual'?) instability.)
Anyway, I'm sure you get rambling emails relating to your blog all the time so I'll cut off now, while I'm still making (some kind of) sense. Thanks, by the way, for including my site in your recent round-up of poetry blogs - I'd never realised I was 'post-avant' before!
All the best,
Rob’s ongoing “dailyish” poem “Issue” certainly is post-avant. It’s a fun project to watch as it evolves. Because of the nature of Blogger software – though it’s a feature that can be toggled in the opposite direction – one gets the curious experience of reading the poem in reverse sequence, rather like the films Memento or Irreversible.
* Though Alan Davies’ piece “?s to .s,” published in the issue on my work in The Difficulties in fact does just that.
Sunday, May 25, 2003
This blog greeted its 35,000th visitor last night. I continue to be amazed at the level of response. Thank you.