Saturday, September 13, 2003
My piece Wednesday on H.D., Noveliste, has me thinking about the further question of how form, genre & chance impact our lives. Several things I saw this past week reinforced this mulling-over process. One was an article in The Guardian, which I actually suspect may be an adapted introduction from his book, by Salam Pax. Pax, a Baghdad architecture student, created a personal weblog in English only to discover that it had become one of the most widely read “inside views” of the last days of Saddam & the first days of George & Rummy, a process that turned him, to his considerable discomfort (and undoubtedly much risk), into
· An author
· An “expert” on the Iraqi experience
professes to be neither. But excerpts of his blog can be had now in book form
in the U.K. & Grove Press will release a
The second item is the Perceval Press web site. Perceval is a new small press that recently published a book of René Ricard’s paintings & drawings, and is about to release Land of the Lost Mammoths, a novel of left culture critic Mike Davis. Some interesting & quirky material. Perceval has also published four books, including poetry, painting, collage work & photography, by press founder Viggo Mortensen, whom you may know better as Aragorn/Strider from The Lord of the Rings films.
As someone who
has edited Davis, a brilliant but
exceptionally undisciplined author, the prospect of a novel, a project
completely in keeping with
Mortensen has seen his own public notoriety skyrocket of late. In addition to his career-making role in the Ring trilogy, anyone who saw his turn as the painter boyfriend in A Perfect Murder & realized that those were in fact his paintings will understand Mortensen takes these other genres seriously, however variously he may succeed or not in each. Unlike, say, Jewel or Leonard Nimoy, Mortensen is at least a serious artist whose day job happens to be in film, not unlike Michael Lally or Harry Northrup.
The third is a DVD I saw the other night, Genghis Blues, a 1999 documentary starring two musicians, Paul Pena & Kongar-ol Ondar. If you saw the list of CD stacks I have in my study, you know that one stack focuses on blues & another on world music, with a fair amount of Tuvan throat singing in the latter pile. Genghis Blues is one of the very few places in which these two interests converge.
singing or khoomei is a harmonic singing tradition in
which the performer sings two, sometimes even as many as four, notes at one
time. Different versions of this tradition exist in
Tuva, once the
nation of Tannu
Tuva, is now one of the
Pena’s wife died of renal failure in 1991, the bluesman has lived a pretty
hand-to-mouth existence in
In every one of these instances, questions of social framing can be raised in many different ways:
· Is Salam Pax an architecture student who writes, or vice verse?
· Is Viggo Mortensen an actor, poet, painter, photographer?
· Is Mike Davis a novelist?
· At what level is Paul Pena a Tuvan singer?
artists who have been successful in more than one field, such as
What conclusions might one draw from this? Only that there are no guarantees – what makes an artist successful in one genre may have no bearing whatsoever on another. And there certainly are instances in which artists commit a larger part of their live to an endeavor that, like Hilda Doolittle’s novels, gets far less public recognition than some other form. Gertrude Stein had something like this happen to her when The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, clearly written to be a best seller, recast Stein’s public image dramatically.
come up with even more complicated configurations. Stan Rice, when still an extremely ambitious up-&-coming academic
poet/professor, encouraged his wife Anne to write. The phenomenal
financial success of her vampire novels eliminated any economic need on his
part &, after he left his job at
Friday, September 12, 2003
Coromandel is an Indian term referring
originally to the coastal region of
Coromandel also is the name for
could rightly be characterized as a 3rd generation projectivist
poet, having studied with
Literary history being the history not of poems & prose, but of change, third generation writers often go underappreciated even as they produce some of the very best & most satisfying works of their respective periods. At least the NY School’s third class had some geographic sense of cohesion – though look at the history of Actualism to see what might happen in its absence – but after the transformation of Caterpillar into not a butterfly, but Sulfur, projectivism went for over a decade really without a journal or press seriously devoted to its development & evolution, before it began to show up again as one of several focuses for Ed Foster’s Talisman, & then with sharper focus in House Organ’s rough-&-ready format & finally the superb volumes being put forward by Devin Johnston’s Flood Editions. It’s an integral part of the Skanky Possum program as well.
Structurally, Coromandel has five sections, each shorter than the one that preceded it. The first, the aforementioned “Book II” (19 pages in this chapbook), is composed of unrhymed couplets. The second section, “This is the House” (17 pages), is a long single stanza, individual lines generally running anywhere from one to nine words. The third, “Quincunx” (14 pages), is composed of five line stanzas. The fourth, “Part 4” (6 pages in this format, although it would telescope down considerably with a wider page that didn’t require so many hanging indents), treats each long line as an individual stanza. The last, “Trikona” (2 pages), has eight three-line stanzas. Thus all but one section alludes in its title to some aspect of number. But the “II” in ”Book II,” if it has any referential or formal meaning seems to point not to the position in the sequence but counterintuitively to lines per stanza. Ditto “Quincunx” and “Trikona.” Yet “Part 4” is, in fact the fourth part. And that section reflects no correlation between number & internal form.
Walter Benjamin’s distinctions between titles – terms or phrases that “name the entire work” – and captions – terms or phrases that point into a work & thus organize our reception – is worth considering here, because at some level Meyer’s work is doing something different altogether. Just as the “II” is not a way to characterize the formal structure of the first section of the poem, neither does “Quincunx” really function to identify the 102 five-line stanzas that fall under it. “Trikona,” Sanskrit for triangle, has its origin as a term in yoga, the theory of charkas and Indian abstract design. Fiveness & threeness are as much a part of these words’ connotative undercoating as they are of their denotative functionality. Each title stands rather as if at an angle with regards to the work it envelopes or at least touches.
is a poet who values precision, perhaps above any other aspect of his writing.
A train passes. Stars
Of all this.
Horus sucks his
They gather the dark in baskets
the livelong day.
Maple leaf. Angel’s wing.
This book’s leaves
fall from trees.
Not place, but position.
Periplum was the term Pound borrowed from Greek sailors, negotiating a territory of constant reconfiguration. Language likewise operates through a continual process of differentiation. The space between words is, in fact, a distancing effect. Meyer throughout this book is identifying exactnesses.
As the passage above suggests, Meyer prefers his effects to be subtle, the shifts gradual rather than angular. The gap between sentences in “Measure. / Of all this.” is hardly a canyon. It’s not that Meyer can’t or won’t move toward an extreme – “Giordano Bruno’s charred body rises in my sleep” – but the reader does not get the cognitive whiplash that is sometimes a feature of langpo. The result is closer to the music of a Satie than, say, a Wagner. Or Johnny Rotten. Or perhaps I should say simply that Meyer seems to have located the space in the projectivist tradition that comes closest to the poetry of a writer like Forrest Gander or Ann Lauterbach. In this sense, Coromandel feels very much to me like a poetry for grown ups. Which, for example, Rimbaud is not.
If I have a hesitation or aesthetic difference with this book, it’s only in its sequence of successively shorter segments, a movement that grates against my own bias for a form that spirals from the innermost part of the mollusk toward its outer rim. Meyer’s process in this sense feels anti-narrative in a way that I’m not certain he intends. I could, I suspect, make an argument for the logic of it, not unlike the way the titles deploy number. Or like Zeno’s footsteps growing successively shorter on their way to the door. Yet no amount of intellectual justification will ever fully mute that tiny scratching on the blackboard of my soul. Underneath this complex & quite gorgeous tour de force, I hear it still.
Thursday, September 11, 2003
Pieces of the past arise out of
rubble. Which evokes Eliot and
then evokes Suspicion. Ghosts
all of them. Doers of no good.
The past around us is deeper than.
Present events defy us, the past
Has no such scruples. No funeral
processions for him. He died
in agony. The cock under the thumb.
Rest us as corpses
For a funeral (as I live and
First poem for The Nation,
Second poem for Poetry Chicago
Book of Magazine Verse
© 1966 by Robin Blaser
Wednesday, September 10, 2003
everyone I know thinks of Jack Kerouac as a novelist who wrote poetry. But what about Gilbert
Sorrentino? Before Mulligan
Stew and the other long prose fictions that made Sorrentino justly famous
as a novelist, he was a successful poet (and a superb critic of
poetry). Along with the then-LeRoi Jones, the always-on-the-road Paul
Blackburn, and youngsters George Economou, Rochelle
Another poet with an even more ambiguous relation to these genres has been Toby Olson, again a second generation Projectivist. Because he’s published in both forms throughout his life, I’ve always suspected that his work has been underestimated in each form. The very same silliness that bedevils the bookstore clerk who cannot decide whether Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate is fiction or poetry*, let alone Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, plays out in the minds of readers more generally when it comes to considering the lifework of different authors. Case in point: Hilda Doolittle.
Almost everyone thinks of Doolittle as a poet who also wrote some fiction, as well as translations & memoirs. Yet H.D. published, for all extents and purposes, just a dozen or so books of poetry during her lifetime, going long periods between volumes after the appearance of her first Collected Poems in 1925. And that number shrinks if you treat Trilogy as one book, instead of three. During this long productive career – just under half a century – Doolittle also wrote 19 novels and collections of stories, according to Susan Stanford Friedman’s 1987 chronology of H.D.’s writing, published in the special issue of Sagetrieb devoted to Doolittle’s work. They include the following:
· Paint It Today, novel
· Asphodel, novel
· Pilate’s Wife, novel
· Palimpsest, novel (interlocking stories)
· Nike, novel
· Hedylus, novel
· HER, novel (published as HERmione)
· Narthex, novella
· The Usual Star, stories
· Kora and Ka, novellas
· Nights, novella
· The Hedgehog, novel
· The Seven, stories
· Bid Me to Live, novel
· Majic Ring, novel
· The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), novel
· White Rose and the Red, novel
· The Mystery, novel
· Magic Mirror, novel
Not all of these novels ever made it into print. Friedman’s note for Nike simply reads “Destroyed.” Biographer Guest politely notes that “Hipparchia: War Rome (Circa 75 B.C.)” has “none of the polish or professionalism” of H.D.’s later work, and I would pass a similar judgment on Paint It Today. Friedman lists Pilate’s Wife as “submitted and rejected,” & White Rose and the Red as “probably rejected.” Yet 19 booklength works over a 35-year span (H.D. appears to have begun writing fiction in 1921, after her life began to stabilize somewhat with the presence of Bryher; the final item, Magic Mirror, was written in the mid-1950s) demonstrates a considerable emphasis, a commitment of time & effort. Indeed, between the first Collected Poems in 1925 and her next book of poetry, Red Roses for Bronze, in 1931, Doolittle produced seven novels & collections of stories, plus the verse drama Hippolytus Temporizes plus her work on the film Borderline.
make the case that Doolittle was, in fact, a novelist – tho not a successful
one – who wrote poetry at least as much as she was a poet who wrote fiction.
While that may seem like a difference within a distinction (& vice versa),
it has, I suspect, real consequences in terms of how H.D. saw herself &
thus how she envisioned her career as author. Did she feel satisfied? Was she pleased at what she had accomplished? These
are, I think, legitimate questions. During a poet’s life, they have everything
to do with how the writer decides what’s
next, and even how to proceed. At
one level, the writer in me would love for an Emily Dickinson, say, to
understand the breadth & depth of her achievement, the power of her impact
on the world. At another, younger writers are constantly confronted with
options, nearly every one of which is an incentive to stop writing poetry. What
if, for example, Jack Spicer had finished his detective novel & it had
proven to be a best-seller, followed with a major motion picture? What if, in
precisely the other direction, Trout
Fishing in America had not been so fabulously successful? Would Richard
Brautigan still be alive today? Would there be a west coast tradition of the humorous
lyric as widespread as that which flowed from the
In practice, I haven’t seen anything yet to suggest that this is how Doolittle saw herself, albeit I am still acquainting myself with the territory & I have a long way still to go. Nonetheless what I want to be conscious of, at least for today, is how the H.D. we know / I know is a construct. That is, we define her as the poet & in so doing condition many of our responses to new information, setting our expectations accordingly. The fiction that is in print, such as it is, for example, appears to have been published to fill out the oeuvre of the poet, not because anyone thought that it might transform a history of the novel (although, in fact, it is historically important to the degree that H.D. was writing overtly lesbian fiction at time when this was hardly done at all, & only at some risk). Which is to say that all of the reasons for publishing H.D.’s fiction have little or nothing to do with its actual quality as fiction.
* Hint: bad fiction, worse poetry.
Tuesday, September 09, 2003
There is an interesting image in Barbara Guest’s excellent biography of Hilda Doolittle, Herself Defined, of imagism as a movement after Ezra Pound had moved on to join Wyndham Lewis in declaring Vorticism. The image Guest leaves the reader with is one of a lone major Imagiste, H.D., a second-but-inferior entrepreneurial huckster in Amy Lowell, and a handful of second-tier poets of the likes of John Gould Fletcher and Richard Aldington, having to carry on with no clear sense of direction. Guest outlines the ways in which the Imagism of these latter poets was invariably compromised – either too Georgian or just too muddled. The implication is that once Pound turned his attention elsewhere, Imagism lost its “head.” Ultimately, and Guest is fairly explicit about this, there would be only one “true” Imagist: H.D.
opens, for me, the deeper question of what an –ism can possibly be. The idea of
poetry organized in some fashion around a common purpose necessarily implies
the possibility of shared motives. That’s a concept that comes more directly
from French painting (& secondarily French symbolist poetry) than it does
the tradition of Anglo-American letters. Still there are sporadic foretastes,
including the mid-19th century squabbling between the Young
Americans and the anglophiles of the
An –ism of
this order strikes me as being essentially hollow, aimed less at the poets than
at some externalized audience. Contrast this with, for example, the most
pronounced ism of the 1950s, Projectivism. While Olson, Creeley, Dorn, Duncan
& Sorrentino all wrote substantive works of critical writing – and some of
Olson’s in particular embody the rhetoric of a manifesto – they’re really aimed
at one another. What we are reading in their works is much more of an internal
discussion – they’re goading one another to write better & to take greater
chances in their work. One sees this also, I think, in the relatively few
critical works to emerge from the
It’s not that Pound wasn’t interested in communicating with other poets, but his rather frenetic social organizing never moved toward a community because that was never its purpose.
Monday, September 08, 2003