Saturday, November 15, 2003
Mario Merz died last Sunday – to those of us who have used the Fibonacci series in our art, this is not minor or distant news. While every one of the artists I’ve come across who have explored & exploited this series – 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 etc. – each number always the sum of the two previous numbers – seems to have arrived at it by him or herself independently (William Duckworth to his compositions for piano, saxophone or web, Inger Christensen to her poetry, Merz to his igloos often composed of found objects or otherwise anti-aesthetic materials), there seems no question that Merz got there first.
What you can do with number in art is pretty damn near anything, if you simply think about for a while. None of these artists are much like one another, though each is representative of the more avant (or post-avant) tendencies in their forms. I don’t think Inger Christensen’s poetry is at all like my own, even though her booklength poem based on Fibonacci is entitled Alphabet!! Merz’ use of the series is all about ratio, an argument for scale & livability. There is an air of precision in Duckworth’s music that seems a far cry from Merz’ ragged edges, or those of my own poetry as well.
Yet I do think there is a deeper shared sensibility at work here. It’s no accident, for example, that Duckworth’s influences can be traced back to the work of John Cage, or that Christensen has been consistently the most formally innovative of Danish poets.
Arte Povera, a visual arts tendency from 1960s Italy – the work dates from the beginning of the decade, the critics finally “named” the school around ’67 – was both formally innovative & made a point of using materials from the world itself, rather than merely what might be purchased from an arts supplies vendor. Its closest kin in the United States is Pop Art, I suppose, although Arte Povera always strikes me as being implicitly political, or at the very least social, in ways that most Pop – Warhol would be the exception* – does not. Merz was a medical student jailed for anti-fascist activity when he first began to draw.
There is a 21-year range between the four of us. Merz began using Fibonacci in 1971 & within a decade all four of us had produced at least one work of some size using the form. Looking at the work of the others & how different they seem, not only from my own poetry, but from each other, what strikes me most is a sense of all the other ways in which Fibonacci has yet to be explored. But I wonder if, a century hence, somebody won’t come along with a theory as to why four diverse artists from one generation broadly defined (“too young to fight in WW2, yet touched by it in some fashion”) would turn to number as a way to open up the world.
Why Fibonacci is that key series I have no doubt. Its ratios are distinct enough to both convey a sense of shape, movement, development. Much of poetry is expressed historically in terms of prime numbers – iambic pentameter rather than the ten-syllable line, or the construction of a haiku out of 3, 5 & 7 – yet primes very quickly dissolve in terms of such ratios. There is no way for a reader, viewer, listener, whatever to get any sense of shape or direction from 191, 193, 197 & 199, for example. And it gets worse the higher one goes. The 12th number in the Fibonacci series happens to be 12², yet it comes equidistant between the 34th & 35th prime numbers. When taken as a ratio, Fibonacci is literally the Golden Mean: 1.6180339887499…. Φ.
Knowing how Fibonacci functions & knowing how one might use it in any given medium are two very different things. Here’s to Mario Merz, who saw it first.
* And would deny it! Yet consider that Guston’s turn back toward a more overtly political content was precisely what drove him to the iconography of comics.
Friday, November 14, 2003
Thursday, November 13, 2003
week in Orono, Jennifer Moxley asked me what the role of jazz is with regards
to poetry for poets of "my generation,” she had something specific in
mind. At the
Beavers, whose poetry often employs personae & dramatic monolog, had been contrasting the role of jazz & the church in the African American community. He had in fact gone so far as to diagram it on his notepad as he sat to my left, with church as a vertical axis, invoking both the spiritual & community dimensions of experience, jazz representing both the secular & improvisatory along a horizontal axis. I don’t think Herman said it like this, but I’m sure that at some point I heard (or at least imagined) one axis as community, the other as individuality.
come to jazz in the same way at all. By the time I was old enough to start
listening half-seriously to Mingus, Monk & Coltrane right at the end of
high school, jazz had already made the precipitous transition from its role as
the most popular musical genre of the 1930s & early ‘40s to a specialist
music practiced primarily by black intellectuals. It was this practice &
the role the musicians I got to know gradually were playing – Anthony Braxton,
Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of
moved to San Francisco for a second time – the first was to attend SF State in
the mid-‘60s – in 1972, I began to spend time at Keystone Corner, a club
immediately next to the North Beach police station, so that people like Braxton
& Taylor became more than just names on record albums in those days of
vinyl. And I gradually became aware of younger, local musicians such as Idris
Ackamoor, George Lewis, John Gruntfest, Lisa Rose, Greg Goodman &
important for me, even beyond the syncopations & measures of the music, has
always been jazz as a model for thinking through the issues of art. It’s
obviously note alone in that regard – one might be attracted, say, to the film
work of a Michael Snow or Stan Brakhage or
Now, having said all this, jazz for me has always been one of several musics to which I attend. I’ve been listening to folk music ever since I first heard it in the civil rights actions of the very early ‘60s (predating by a year or two my exposure to jazz), world music is exceptionally important to me even now. Post-classical music since the Second World War (especially Cage, Partch, the early Reich, Hovhaness, Harrison & more recently Tina Davidson) is always also a part of the mix. All of these musics include, in addition to their formal concerns, other elements, aspects of what it means to be an artists – my sense of a literary community comes right out of my interest in folk music, for example. And to some degree these different genres double in their value because I can think of them in a freeform kind of way. I’m not invested in them the way I am different elements of 20th century literary history.
And that too is one of the values of art. Just as David Bromige & I once had long discussions about the films of Ingmar Bergman because they enabled us to explore aesthetics without getting into the “dangerous” territory of our own writing, other art forms present us always with models of how it could be done differently, if we but look & listen.
* Was it
Creeley who first noted that what the poets at
** This is a feature that Berssenbrugge shares with the late Jack Spicer, but I have no idea at all where he gets it. Maybe from Martians over the radio. He doesn’t feel painterly in the least.
Wednesday, November 12, 2003
A question posted more or less anonymously – signed only “AT”* – to my blog in response to my piece on Bruce Andrews the other day asked pointedly:
Does it bother you to be publishing in a journal that looks like it was edited in the 50s still? That seems to act as if women do not write anything? What do you support when you send your work out?
It’s a fair
enough question even if not posed in a very fair way. The November issue of PLR,
the journal I focused on in both my piece on Andrews & the later Keston
Sutherland contribution, lists 21 contributors, only two of whom appear to be
women: Nicole Tomlinson & HOW² editor
& publisher Kate Fagan.** Numbers like that do
harken back to the 1950s & very early ‘60s, when Totem/Corinth could issue
a volume entitled Four Young Lady Poets, edited
by LeRoi Jones, noted feminist. Among the men listed in the included in the
November PLR are Andrews (tho the
excerpt given on the website is from the piece that ran in October),
I hadn’t looked at PLR before responding to Louis Armand’s request for a critical contribution. My piece had been languishing ever since Leslie Davis & her anthology on the 20th century disappeared into the night – a too common experience in the small press literary world, alas. So I responded by sending that. Worse yet, at least I suppose from “AT”’s perspective, I didn’t immediately scan the issue with an eye toward gender. I suspect that the ratios for racial balance are similarly appalling, but I don’t know how I might check that.
that there are not enough women in PLR, however,
is not the same necessarily as suggesting that its editors are old-fashioned
chauvinists, although that seems implicit in AT’s
comment. It is quite apparent, at this moment in history, that the problem of
women’s participation in English-language poetry per se is largely a thing of the past. At least half of the
interesting younger writers right now are women – women appear to be active in
virtually every literary tendency. However, I’m not sure that the same can be
said for critical writing. Even when we take in all the women who have written
important critical & theoretical work – Jan Clausen, Judy Grahn, Barbara
Guest, Lyn Hejinian,
Three quick data points to underscore what I mean:
· If one looks at the 38 contributors to the 19 events that were the Philly Talks series, men outnumbered women 27 to 11.
· If one looks at the critical discourse of the Poetry & Empire retreat, one of whose conveners was Susan Stewart, the list of original invitees was 21 men & 13 women; in practice, the first evening saw 17 men & 13 women present, the Saturday session shifted to 19 men & 13 women, & the Sunday concluding one – the one most impinged upon by people having to deal with their “real” lives – was especially lopsided at 15 men & 6 women.
· If I simply scan the blogroll to the left of the screen here, I find 132 blogs by men, 57 by women, & 15 where I can’t tell the gender of the blogger or which are multi-person (& at least potentially multi-gender) blogs.
There are, of course, an almost infinite number of reasons why this might be so – every curator of every talk series (& virtually every male editor of a critical journal) with whom I’ve discussed this topic over the years has complained of great difficulty in getting full participation by women. The exceptions to this general tendency – (How)ever/How² and Chain – demonstrate that it need not be thus imbalanced, but the fact that in 2003 – twenty years after the first issue of (HOW)ever – these journals continue to function as exceptions demonstrates a deeper & more intractable problem.
Of my three
examples above, the blogroll strikes me as the most fair index of the current
state of affairs. First, because it doesn’t require an editorial gatekeeper to
start a weblog – I try to include anybody who has a blog related to poetry or
poetics in English. Second, it’s not
Given the presence of Kate Fagan in the PLR table of contents, I would suspect that the gender balance of that publication has less to do with any agenda on the part of its editors than it does their ability to address the issue. So while one might well say that they need to try harder (or better, or smarter), it’s a far cry from a circumstance of active malice.
Malice is a serious dimension, not to be discounted. Failures of commission are indeed radically unlike those of omission.
I spent part of Sunday listening to malice in its baldest, most stomach-turning form – excerpts from two of Ezra Pound’s fascist radio broadcasts. In one, Pound suggests that the U.S. entry into World War 2 is a the result of underhanded dealings by Felix Frankfurter, then a Supreme Court justice (also a founder of the ACLU, a defender of Sacco & Vanzetti & the man who convinced Woodrow Wilson not to seek the death penalty against Tom Mooney, the organizer framed in the World War I “Preparedness Day” riot in San Francisco). In the second broadcast, Pound actively defends the argument of Mein Kampf. Listening to Pound rail on in unmistakably anti-Semitic terms & talk of how FDR should “commit suicide on the Capitol steps” is blood curdling, to say the least.
I was subjecting myself to this bile at the urging of longtime friend Ben Friedlander who spent part of last Friday in Orono trying to convince me that Ezra Pound was, in his words, “a terrible poet.” I’m not convinced of that, but I don’t think there’s any argument that Pound was a terrible person. There is a difference. The Pisan Cantos, written just a few years after these speeches, is – to my reading – one of the great works of the 20th century.
So this is where AT’s question reaches me – what do I support if I think Pound’s poetry is not fatally curdled by his racist & literally fascist politics? That seems a far clearer picture of the ethical implications of this problematic than PLR’s inability to overcome a social phenomena that shows up almost everywhere in poetry, even now.
At one level, this strikes me as not being too far from the question of the value of any work produced, say, by a psychotic. Is the writing of Hannah Weiner, John Wieners, or Jimmy Schuyler any less because they were psychiatrically disabled? Reading the actual texts of Pound’s speeches, the “saving” diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia than enabled him to escape the firing squad & spend the next 13 years in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital doesn’t seem at all far-fetched. In fact, one of the great problems of schizophrenia is that it is a physical disease whose symptoms are specifically social. Because of who Pound was, his acting out turns out to have been more disgusting & appalling than that of the next generation of poet-psychotics, but is it medically different? What about the paintings of Henry Darger, who at the very least had the imagination of a pedophile even as he conceived of “the girls” as heroines to be saved? Where does one draw the line & how? There were right-wing politicians who wanted to condemn Stanford’s purchase of Allen Ginsberg’s archives because of his role in NAMBLA, a pedophile rights group. There are others every bit as appalled at the invocation of AIDS as a “gift” compliments of Tom Clark in Ed Dorn’s Rolling Stock.
that this is at all simple is nonsense. At the height of the Vietnam War,
Robert McNamara, the
As an artist & as a citizen – roles that I’m not convinced are that different – I need to see the world for what it is, as well as for the alternative possibilities of what it might be, utopian & dystopian alike. Ultimately, I think that means being able to see what good there is in a terrible person – be it Pound, Céline or Leni Riefenstahl. And it means engaging in projects that I support in part, even when I am critical, helping to make them more of what I would want them to be.
* “AT” sent
a second note on the same day that suggests that he or she may have attended
** I should note that there are a few contributors whose gender I simply cannot discern.
*** My inclusion of Robert Grenier’s “JOE JOE” in my list of “most influential” works generated several responses in this vein.
Tuesday, November 11, 2003
Props to Scott St. Martin, the 75,000th visitor to this blog. Props also to the person who can tell me the most convincing story as to how this use of the word “props” began.
is a new Poker out, numero 3, & the darned thing just keeps getting better.
There is some terrific new poetry, including major contributions from Fanny
The main body of the talk, "The Basis of Poetic Form," consists of seven numbered principles or assertions about poetry, four of which have extended notes that follow. At the end of the seventh note begins the section derived from the cards, which opens the entire discussion up for an extended consideration of poetry as ethics or at least ethos. Deming in his preface alludes to Wittgenstein in arguing that ethics & aesthetics are one, a point he sees Williams having in common with the philosopher (whom he admits having no evidence Williams ever read). Reading the piece itself, the connection occurred to me as well, not for that tie-in (which is largely the product of Deming's decision to include the cards), but rather because Williams' seven assertions is not dissimilar from Wittgenstein's initial attempt to encapsulate all logic into the seven master sentences of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
The first of Williams' assertions reads as follows:
There are many ways of looking at a poem -- all of them misleading unless founded upon structure.
A sentence like the one above reminds me of just how much of a modernist (or neomodernist) I really am. If there is anything inaccurate about this statement, I can't see it. Yet I note how Williams couches this assertion of structure's primacy -- it's very indirect. It also (inescapably, to my mind) invokes Wallace Stevens. I'm wondering here about questions of occasion & audience -- did Williams see Harvard '41 as Stevens' turf in some fashion?
Williams' second assertion invokes associations as well, but in a very different direction, one WCW could not have anticipated -- Roland Barthes & his Writing Degree Zero (composed just 13 years later & with Rene Char as its literary horizon):
A poem is a use of words (as emphasized by Gertrude Stein) to raise the mind to a level of the imagination beyond that attainable by prose. It is prose plus.
And in a note that follows, Williams poses Jabberwocky's relation to Alice in Wonderland as an example. It is worth underscoring Williams' invocation of Stein here -- by 1941 Stein is famous (something she was not 15 years prior), but already being treated by the American media as an instance of avant-gardiste as jokester & joke (a role it will later assign to Andy Warhol, say). But that is not how Williams is using her here, & obviously not how he expects this audience to understand the reference.
is, 62 years later, easy enough to recite all the ways in which the idea of
"prose plus" can be
problematized, even to cite Williams' own earlier works (Kora in Hell, certainly, but possibly also the critical prose in Spring & All) as instances
(alongside Stein's Tender Buttons) of the vibrant
possibilities for poetry in prose in English -- no need to turn here to Perse or Ponge or Jacob. Yet what strikes me more deeply in
this statement is the absence of the word machine:
Williams does not call the poem a machine
made of words. Is it the audience? Is it the changing nature of the machine
itself as a social phenomenon, with
The third assertion brings together the elements of the first two -- structure & words -- in a way that I don't think I've seen done elsewhere:
And thus poetic form comprises the words and its structural uses -- that character which the structure superadds to the words their literal meanings. But the form thus achieved becomes by that itself a "word," the most significant of all, that dominates every other word in the poem.
Williams is drawing a distinction here between structure & form. Form is the structure of the poem and what the words themselves bring to the occasion. But note that, back in that first assertion, the term structure itself has never been defined. Now, however, the third term in this equation (structure + words = form) is given a very curious definition: it is not structural per se* but rather a kind of word, a word in quotes, a word as hegemon to the poem.
One could write a dissertation I suspect unpacking those two sentences -- they are clearly the most important in this talk -- and after a (for this talk) lengthy note in which Williams dismisses first Imagism ("as a form it completely lacked structural necessity") and then Objectivism ("there were few successes -- or have been few, so far"), both of which miss the mark due to an allegiance, Williams thinks, to the image, WCW himself starts to enumerate the implications of this three-part equation:
The structural approach has two phases, the first the selection of forms from poems already achieved, to restuff them with metaphysical and other matter, and the second, to parallel the inventive impetus of other times with structural concepts derived from our own day. The first is weak, the other strong.
The degree to which Williams is provoking his audience is inescapable in Williams' fifth assertion:
The weak approach to the understanding of poetic form is typified by the teaching attitude. Teaching -- that is, the academy -- is predominantly weak. It can't be otherwise and this, in fact, is its strength. It rests on precedent. But because of this it tends to arrogate to itself honors and prerogatives which, sometimes, it does not deserve.
Harsh words coming from a man who doesn't know the difference between that & which. Williams' argument, that weakness is teaching's strength, sounds like something out of Sun Tzu's Art of War. It is worth noting here the tacit distinction Williams is making between "the academy" and invention, particularly given the relationship of science to both institutions (a relationship that, in 1941, is soon to change with the advent of the nuclear era). Scientists draw conclusions from nature, the evidence, facts. Inventors use such data as inputs into their creative process, one that recasts the world as they produce new technologies, tools, processes. "The academy," specifically literary studies, only has what Williams has called "poems already achieved" for its raw data, but given that humans are social & must live within historical time, this forces the academy into an ever backwards looking role. Implicit in Williams' model -- and keep in mind that as a physician, he has by now decades of experience as a consumer of science & user of inventions, not a scientist himself but rather a practitioner of its effects -- is that poets are to the academy as inventors are to science. Williams doesn't outright say this -- this assertion is one of the three unaugmented by any note -- but I think it is unavoidable in looking at the system being proposed here.
Predictably the sixth & penultimate numbered assertion here focuses instead on what Williams would call strong poetry. But what is less predictable is the claim (or concession) that he makes at the end of this paragraph:
The strong approach -- made through the vernacular by attention to its modulated character, inventing from that ground to parallel the successes of the other eras -- is relegated too often to the service of outlaws. Over long periods the weak approach tends to culminate in the strong, establishing the peaks of literature.
Relegated to the service of outlaws -- who precisely does Williams mean by this? Whitman? Rimbaud? Pound? Blake? Futurism & dada? And what precisely does he mean by outlaw? Is it simply a designation of outsider status, so that Melville & Dickinson might be included? Or is he suggesting something more completely antisocial, narrowing the term down to the African arms trader & the Nazi propagandist? Again the paragraph carries no supplemental note that might unpack these not inconsequential distinctions for us. Further, what does Williams mean when he claims that the weak approach tends to culminate in the strong? Does Williams mean, as I think maybe he does, that a period dominated socially or institutionally by weak poetry leads inevitably to a reaction in which strong poetry overturns the apple cart? If so, then he is speaking in 1941 right at the outset of what will be the most compelling period of evidence for his theory, as the Second World War broke the connection with European modernism and allowed the American academy to become heavily dominated by the "weak" poetry of New Criticism, overthrown in the mid-'50s by the resurgence of a New American poetry. If so, it is the moments of disruption that Williams is identifying her as the "peaks of literature." Yet the language he chooses doesn't sound like the rhythmic alteration we associate with volcanoes -- long periods of settling & sediment punctuated by eruptions, entailing heat & light. Rather it sounds additive. That when the strong arrives (or is let in) to supplement the weak is when such peaks occur. Although I think Williams is clear enough elsewhere that what he thinks generally is the former, this particular wording is ambiguous enough that it might be heard either way. & given this audience, this might represent Williams' sense of a "concession," an inclusionary gesture, however faint.
At this point in William's talk, his structure of presentation has been very clear. The number paragraphs (as distinct from the supplementary notes) follow an identifiable structure.
1. General premise
2. Assertion: implication
3. Assertion: implication
4. Assertion: implication, etc.
Each numbered paragraph after the first has two sentences exactly. The seventh & final numbered paragraph must, however, complete the arc of Williams' argument, drawing the circle if not shut, at least to conclusion:
New concepts will always call for new forms and new forms demand new structures. The basis of new poetic forms and structures will always be that age which demands of them its fullest expression, that will be impatient of traditional limitations which conceal in their rigidities our destruction.
one level, this is the longstanding political case against the
New concepts. Not, it is worth underlining here, new conditions in the social world. Rather, it is the ideas in men & women that are generated as they confront this new raw data that Williams identifies here as the generative force, the source of continual, unceasing change that lies at the heart of literature. Always call. Change not for the sake of change but rather inescapably because the world itself changes constantly. Because the world itself is change. Thus the "basis of new poetic forms" -- the phrase differs from Williams' title only insofar as forms has become plural & new is new -- is precisely time. Social, historical time: "that age which demands of them its fullest expression."
But in pluralizing form & adding new, Williams is making a second argument here as well. The basis of "restuffed" forms, the traditional, lies exactly in a wish against the age. It's too simple to merely call this nostalgia. Rather, it is a denial, for example, of all the horrors of the modern, from the genocide of the Armenians at the hands of the Turks*** to the immiseration of the Depression, the rise of the Gulag, the advent of Hitler. On a more general or symbolic level, the traditional may even be read as a denial of death, not in the sense of protest or "overcoming" through good works, but through avoidance & pretense. Like my mother-in-law who would not allow her husband to go through the front doors of the oncology clinic because of the word Cancer emblazoned there. The traditional in this sense is the "hear no evil, speak no evil" school of poetry, even when & as it writes of rape, murder, genocide, abuse. The pathology of this world view cannot be understated+, but Williams chooses to do exactly that now that he is speaking at the very heart of its institutional expression, Harvard. His conclusion is politic, even as it is unavoidable.
"The Basis of Poetic Form" is not without its problems, although in my reading these have mostly to do with Williams' failure to fully articulate a definition of structure & its relationship to form as he uses that word. I'm not convinced that the ethics of Williams' address rises or falls on his inability to completely untangle those two terms, but disentangling the two threads, one of form, one of structure, could not help but throw new light not just on all the poetries of Williams' own time, from Imagism to the cusp of the New American poetry, but on the poetry of our time as well.
* Whereas in the famous Projectivist formula -- form is nothing more than an extension of content -- form is treated as a synonym for structure, at least as Williams is using the latter word here, a condition (it is worth noting) that affords form less force than Williams assigns it in his equation.
** And why, for example, I don't hesitate to characterize Post-Avant poetics as progressive, as when I deploy that word to characterize the Philly poetry calendar I run on Sundays. No matter politically to the left a poet such as Marilyn Hacker or Carolyn Forché might be, if she chooses in her writing the "traditional limitations which conceal in their rigidities our destruction," then she cannot be characterized as in any manner progressive, merely conflicted or self-destructive.
*** Why is it, after
all, that both the Kurds & Iraqis oppose the presence of Turkish forces in
+ Indeed, it is the very same dynamic that enables many Democratic politicians to call themselves liberal as they compromise the well-being of their constituents & health of the planet, in the pursuit of a self-deluded realpolitik. It is the process that has given us Clintons & Blairs alike.
Monday, November 10, 2003
Sometime today, this blog will greet its 75,000th visitor. Is it you?
Sutherland is being vague. Actually, this isn’t accurate. Keston Sutherland is
being very exact about being vague, almost painfully so, in his superb article
“Vagueness,” which begins on the front page of the new PLR. Given that I was just
as harsh I seem to have been on
Sutherland begins with Bertrand Russell – a cagey starting-point, given both Russell’s mentoring relationship to Wittgenstein (and through Wittgenstein the whole ordinary language movement) & Russell’s own commitment to political engagement (which leads not necessarily to, say, the Frankfort School or the later likes of Bourdieu, but is not so distant from the trends these continental writers represent, either). More precisely, Sutherland begins (albeit after several paragraphs stalking the point) by rejecting Russell’s conception of vagueness as “merely the contrary of precision.” The implication, as Russell proposes it, is something like this: the world is not vague; it is only human beings who can be vague, by not understanding their relation to a set of facts that is (not just represents) the world.
position that might lead one to modes of moral certainty & it is this
predilection that seems to make Sutherland most uneasy. If one were merely
“clear” about the facts, it would be self-evident to anyone that, say, the
Which brings Sutherland (via Heidegger) to this:
It is vigilant
now not to avoid but to comprehend vagueness, to substantiate for an in
vagueness its dialectics. This is a laborious kind of vigilance. For me it is
most thorough only in writing poetry. I feel my work becoming thickened by
inspecificities, I see and produce language ripped down a screen of vagueness.
It is a kind of unhappiness and can in facile ways be attributed to anything: I
say “over the lilac / and nothing and bake” maybe because, what? Kim Il-Jong? Because a Labour MP in
What I feel is a pressure not to specify, but more anxiously a pressure not to concede to precision, by which I do mean Pound’s sense of the word, and Russell’s sense, and the word less specially understood. This would be easier to theorise if I could believe that vagueness in language is a definite index of disappointment, or alienation, or even of the pretentious believe that I experience these conditions. I would then merely be documenting and not dementing life. It is perhaps vaguely such an index; but this reflexive circularity, the characterization of experience by reference to itself as a predicate, is now – in our present spin of days – a form of recumbent and ultimately indifferent thinking.
The idea of vagueness as a register or index of something concrete – alienation, disappointment, overwhelming complexity, whatever – is attractive, no doubt. Sutherland senses its implications for poetry &, quoting Gadamer on Celan, takes us to the idea, oft expressed, that
it is “obligatory” that a poem “not contain a single word standing for something in such a way that another word could be substituted for it.”
This is a concept that we have heard said of the poem a million different ways. It is implicit in the first two of the three principles for Imagism that Ezra Pound, H.D. & Richard Aldington concocted in the summer of 1912:
1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
Sutherland turns instead to Eliot: “It is impossible to say just what I mean.” That’s a statement that might be read as yet another dictum against paraphrasing the poem, but it might also be seen an acknowledgement of an ineffability that lies right at the heart of what Sutherland intends here by vagueness. Sutherland carries this into an attack on the concept of le mot juste, the idea that there might be (must be?) if not an ideal order to any statement, at the very least a best one. And that beneath juste hides an entire conceptualization of justice. Sutherland asks
Is le mot juste, so admired by Pound, the negation of vagueness? Had vagueness been, at this earlier point in the century, unjust? Could it now be time to reverse the intuitive order of that relation, choosing to feel that vagueness is the just, positive term of which precision is the distorted negative?
Sutherland is asking, if I read him right, if in fact vagueness might not now be a register of the impossibility of specification as such in a world in which specification has been reduced to missile-targeting coordinates? The word that Sutherland really wants to defend, to propose, is just this: impossibility.
Impossibility is not just a faded watchword echoing the 1960s campus occupations of “Utopian” vocab. It is the absolute target-concept; it is a positive contingency of all humane expression.
Yet once the term impossibility is introduced, Sutherland does indeed invoke a utopian rhetoric:
this defiance is crucial and true, it is impossible, and as such it is truly expressible only without precision. . . . In poetry, this impossible defiance shines, like love as the ideal limit of hatred.
agree with Sutherland not because I don’t share a sense of a common goal, but
rather because I think he has conflated different (and conflicting)
circumstances into this word vagueness. What is called for is a little
Coleridgean desynonymy, teasing out the differences between two states – a
politically retrograde & dangerous one (much exploited by the current
regime here in the
To draw the
distinction, though, I think we need to go back to Russell’s initial
conceptualization & add to it the Gramscian notion of positionality. That
is, I would agree with Russell’s initial assertion that the world is not vague,
but would reject any concept of a universalizing objectivity because that
necessitates a transpositional universe, the idea
that these relations – and it is the
relations to facts that Russell thinks can be vague – are not impacted by our
position with regards to them, not so much to challenge the idea, say, that two
plus two equals four, but rather that this equation means the same thing to all peoples, regardless of age, gender,
color, history, class, historical moment & so forth. Thus the same “facts”
might mean very different things to different people – if the current situation
their deaths in 1970 & ’71 largely ended that tendency of poetry as an
investigative approach toward expanding our understanding of poetics. There are
many – thousands, literally – poets who follow modified free verse protocols in
their work today, but few if any do so with a sense of extending the
possibilities of transcribed dialect implicit in the work of the Projectivists.
Furthermore, this is true on both sides of the
What then is a “fact”? It isn’t any less objective than before, certainly not if we gauge by actually existing lines in actually existing poems, but its position, both historically in the most general terms and with regards to what each of us might want to do with it personally, is completely different. To write like William Carlos Williams in 2003 does not make one post-avant or even avant. Indeed, it defines one as a particular kind of antiquarian, just like the neo-beats one seems to find in any major metro area, replicating Allen Ginsberg in form perhaps, but antithetical to his life & the project of his writing.
to my mind, is the recognition of just such pressures (social, historic, economic,
etc. etc.) on any given topic, object, “fact,” without a perception of position. Vagueness lacks critical
consciousness precisely where (and when) it is most needed. That lack is what
defines the vague. When George W articulates the logic that Saddam Hussein was
a vicious autocrat with no visible appreciation for the preciousness of life
and Osama Bin Laden is a vicious autocrat with no visible appreciation for the
preciousness of life, therefore they
must have been in cahoots, he & his handlers rely on a sizeable portion of
the populace not recognizing that the relations of these two historical
individuals to – to just pick one detail – the role of the state in Islamic
societies was entirely different, even if their background as one-time CIA “projects”
is not. That vagueness was politically useful to Bush in the run-up to the war,
in that it prevented some from questioning the obvious problems in pro-war
rationale. The Bush program for the environment, the economy, education and
numerous topics not beginning with the letter E relies heavily on just such
vagueness, because infusions of critical consciousness would transform each of
this issues precisely because they erode the welfare of most
The shape-shifting overdetermined aspects of the polymorphous perverse (PP) recognize not only position, but direction & the compression of felt change. As such, PP certainly has room for the irrational – that is often our first register of changing conditions – but it works very hard at not being vague. The distinction in practice is not hard to draw.
Here is an
example taken not from poetry, but from the most recent round of American
elections held just this past Tuesday. In the
Vote for Bolinas to
be a socially acknowledged nature-loving town because to like to drink the
water out of the lakes to like to eat the blueberries to like the bears is not
hatred to hotels and motor boats.
For sake of
contrast, here is one sentence I quoted before from
Their pulsing flesh-blue fingers dominate
the boundless sky that lies between the vertebrae
whose long electric veins
pour a half-ape angel into old winds and hollows.
phrase in this passage that isn’t vague is “flesh-blue.” Telling us that fingers
have pulses or that the sky is boundless is to tell us nothing, exactly, any
more than resurrecting the old trope of
the half-ape angel tells us anything even remotely new about humankind. Long
electric veins suggest the course of the nervous system through the spinal
column, but in terms any child has seen dozens of times in science museums –
nothing new there.
conclusion is that
Sunday, November 09, 2003
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Ron Silliman was born in Pasco,
Washington, although his
parents stayed there just
long enough for his mother
to learn that one could
step on field mice while
walking barefoot through the
snow to the outhouse, and
for his father to walk away
from a plane crash while
smuggling alcohol into
a dry county. Silliman
has written and edited over 30 books,
most recently Revelator from BookThug,
and had his poetry
and criticism translated into 14
languages. Silliman was a 2012
Kelly Writers House Fellow
at the University of Pennsylvania, and
the 2010 recipient of the
Levinson Prize, from the
Poetry Foundation. His sculpture
Poetry (Bury Neon) is permanently
on display in the
transit center of Bury, Lancashire,
and he has a plaque in the walk
dedicated to poetry in his home
town of Berkeley, although
he now lives in Chester County, PA.
In 2015, Silliman is teaching at
Haverford College & the
University of Pennsylvania.