Saturday, January 03, 2004
Ron Silliman forthcoming events
24, Saturday, : reading
Szymaszek, Chicago Poetry Project, Chicago Authors Room, 7th
Floor, Harold Washington Library,
7, Saturday, : reading
3, Wednesday, : reading with Michael
McClure, St. Marks Poetry Project,
little luck & planning, there will be a summer reading in
Friday, January 02, 2004
One of the things I like about Glenn Ingersoll is that he gets to the point. Responding to my comments on the line “being ‘implicit in all language’, the idea that ‘without it even an individual spoken word would lack beginning, middle & end’” here December 29, he asks “What the hell is he talking about?” Good question. Herewith, then, a little demonstration. Consider the following:
One letter of the alphabet. How do we know that I “wrote it” rightside up? Or don’t have it backwards? Here is another letter:
Now we can make some assumptions – one is that this is the 16th letter of the alphabet and that, unless I have some version of dyslexia, I have not confused it with either of the following:
What distinguishes these last three letters from one another is the placement of the vertical bar – in the latter two letters the bar comes either before or after the circle, but in the first it is positioned exactly as it is for the letter b save for the fact that it drops below the line. We can tell if the letter is rightside up or backwards. The line is already implicit here in the individual written letter. It is exactly this positioning system we call the line that enables me to deploy these letters into any number of conceivable combinations:
bop pop bod
And from here the leap into syntax is simply the next logical step. The line has always been implicit in writing & it’s no accident that we learn to write on pages that contain not solely the primary line at the bottom of the letter, but a secondary one that occurs at the top of the curve in an “o.” Those markers are there whether or not they’re visibly drawn wherever writing occurs. Even in poetry that attempts to break out of the line, such as Robert Grenier’s scrawl works, it continually reappears. A poem such as the one linked here is literally all line.
My argument the other day, however, was that the line is not simply peculiar to writing. It occurs in speech & can be found in oral literature even prior to the advent of writing. The line is literally what enables positionality within a word & the positionality of words within any statement. For me at least, that is its core definition. In oral literature, the line is most audible through the evidence of devices such as rhyme, which demarcate units & break a long tale down into measurable (and memorable) segments. Imagine Homer thinking of The Odyssey as one long line. Indeed, the very word verse etymologically recalls the primacy of the line, the function of turning back, reversing to a margin.** Thus, the instant you have a word, any word, you find the line. Without positionality, there would be no differentiation between pots, stop & tops and this is as true for speech as well as for the written.
It is precisely because the line is always already there, even when we mumble amongst ourselves, that it is so very difficult to pin down in contemporary poetry. One might as well attempt to productize gravity or light.
* Also worth
** Thus verse can occur prior to writing, but “free verse” & the prose poem cannot. & historically, this has always been the case. There is no known language in which the appearance of these forms occurs in “reverse order.”
Thursday, January 01, 2004
Resolved for the new year: Blog less, blog better.
Wednesday, December 31, 2003
Saving the best for last, our postal carrier delivered John Godfrey’s Private Lemonade, just out from Adventures in Poetry. Considering that the website lists the book among its 2001-2002 publications (and the book’s page gives the date of April 2003), I shouldn’t quibble – it’s an utterly gorgeous publication, with the look & feel one expects from a high-end trade publisher, not a small press that still puts forward magazines that carry the weight of staples. AiP’s strategy, very obviously, is to pick the right vehicle for the job at hand & here it’s done as well as humans can do it.
I’ve never been a great fan of the abstract lyric, in part because there are so very few poets who do it really well. Not every poem in Private Lemonade qualifies as an abstraction but, where they do, Godfrey’s poems offer a master class in how to produce texts in ways that seem effortless & yet have incredible impact. Here, almost at random, is “That Place Anymore”
To be learned
from but not
Your hand brush
That is just
Have a seat
The key phrase in this poem, the one without which it would all unravel, is, I swear, “yellow jello.” It occurs precisely at the point where the reader has to decide whether or not to create a figurative schema that will render the whole of what has gone before into a plausible narrative. Right at the instant when we most expect one key, crystallizing detail, Godfrey spoons up something very different indeed. The internal rhyme accentuates the device.*
The poem has a second decisive moment right at the very end of the very next line, just as archly slanted as the sudden appearance of jello. The word brush sounds as tho it is missing a syllable – is it? The fact that -es turns up in the very next word again is a form aural accentuation, but here Godfrey is very carefully not giving us any particular clues. In letting the reader hear the syllable’s absence, he gives it & takes it away all in one motion, a sort of sonic translucency that occurs in the mind rather than the mouth of a reader. That absent -es triggers a transformation in the poem – it stops being description & monolog & turns as a speech type into a dialog. Indeed, everything in the final tercet is quoted speech. The your & you that have turned up previously now are foregrounded. It’s a rather remarkable literary effect – as if the lens of the poem has suddenly zoomed in, casting everything into new contexts.
readers can find narrative anywhere – and this poem is, in fact, more
figurative than many in Private Lemonade.
One can build, for example, from ashes
from / my eyebrows & read the poem from this point backwards as now
suddenly “about” the collapse of the
And in poetry today, that still seems to be a very difficult leap to make. In painting, one might imagine as an analog of this sort of lyric a painting, say, by David Salle, one of those canvases in which the various sections are doing different things, so that one corner might be “realistic” where another is still figurative but heavily stylized and still another portion of the canvas is completely abstract. If, and I suspect only if, one attempts to render “That Place Anymore” as narrative or at least figurative, then it seems to me that one has also to admit the possibility of a “simple” poem just this complex, that different stanzas may ultimately play by radically dissimilar rules. (One might then argue that the purpose of a set stanzaic form serves precisely to yoke these divergent impulses under a common exoskeleton, to provide a soft unity over the harder-edged diversity beneath.)
But if one reads it instead without worrying does this fit (which invariably means does this make a master narrative?), then all of these lines function more like others that one cannot even imagine as referential – “Charcoal highlight dubiety” or “Teen chest warm spells” – so that one then arrives instead at a very different understanding of what abstraction might be & how it might work. This is because individual lines, phrases, whole stanzas can be abstract in Godfrey’s poetry, but they are seldom sans syntax. This puts Godfrey very much in the camp of abstraction I associate with the likes of Joe Ceravolo & Clark Coolidge, rather than, say, Sheila E. Murphy, Bob Harrison or Peter Ganick. The presence of syntax, even in broken snatches, permits the language to lift & twist in ways that go beyond what is possible through the mere juxtaposition of unexpected phrase neighbors. To return to the analogy of painting for a minute, it’s as if one set of painters worked the canvas fabulously as a two dimensional surface (think Malevich & Kandinsky), where the others used oil to cause their brush strokes to literally rise up off of the surface & to provide literally a third dimension (think Johns, Pollock, even that moment in Frank Stella’s work where it transforms from his black or gray “lines” to gaudily overbright protractor sculptures that jut out from the wall, sometimes in such materials as cardboard, metal or felt). Godfrey & Ceravolo in particular use syntax to get that sense of “lift.” One result is that I suspect some people will read Private Lemonade the way Peter Schjeldahl once claimed to read Ceravolo:
I rarely know what he is talking about, but I can rarely gainsay a word he uses. Nor do I doubt that every word is in felt contact with actual experience beyond the experience of words.**
You can read Private Lemonade like that. But, if you do, you’re missing at least half of the fun.
* But how many readers will hear the reiteration of phonemes from the last line of the previous tercet: you loyal?
Tuesday, December 30, 2003
Moore’s silent rhyme can be placed into a tradition of what I would
characterize as lineated prose that stretches back at least to Alexander Pope –
actually, there are antecedents back well into the middle ages – and forward to
such diverse contemporary examples as the investigative poetics of
Baudelaire asks, in the famous introduction to
Which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience
what is it about the paragraph, that visible marker of Prose Here, that suggests it can only be done that way? Far more mysterious, I think, than the ways in which prose can be poetic are – and I mean this in the most positive possible sense – the ways in which poetry can be prosaic. This is just part of what Pound is getting at when he suggests that verse needs to be as well written as prose.
But, deeper than that, there are ways in which the values of prose – its distinctive features – can & do bring value to the poem. What has not yet been done, at least not successfully, has been to articulate precisely what those values are. There would seem to be two ways of going about exploring that question. One is the theoretically based approach – to start from classic definitions of prose and work outward. The other is to look at these writers who have shown us glimpses – and I suspect that, to date, this is all they have been, of what a consciously prosaic poetry might be.
Part of the problem no doubt has been the ways in which the very term prosaic is used as a pejorative. It’s that old poetry = prose + X thing, which necessarily implies that prose therefore must also equal poetry minus that ever so elusive X. Yet clearly there are poets who have seen through that ruse – Pope for one, Perelman for another, Marianne Moore for a third – and brought back the goods for us all to see.
This it would seem to me is the absolute inverse of what somebody like Billy Collins is doing. A good project for someone to take on in the coming year(s) would be to articulate more completely how these approaches diverge. And why.
Monday, December 29, 2003
Moore’s poetry for me has always posed the question of the line. Or, perhaps more exactly, the line’s intersection with language,
most often speech. I’ve noted before that the line remains the most
problematic formal component of contemporary poetry. Yet it is poetry that has
recognized & acknowledged that, even prior to the invention of writing, the
line is implicit in all language – without it, even an
Since the age of Wordsworth & Blake, virtually all of the new thinking on the line – which is to say on form at all – has tended to come through various literary tendencies that typically get grouped together under the broader umbrella of the avant-garde. The prose poem, free verse, Projectivism all can be read as discourses on the function of the line in the poem.
A Roman had an
artist, a freedman,
contrive a cone – pine-cone
or fir-cone – with holes for a fountain. Placed on
the prison of St. Angelo, this cone
of the Pompeys, which is known
now as the Popes’, passed
for art. A huge cast
bronze, dwarfing the peacock
statue in the garden of the
it looks like a work of art made to give
to a Pompey, or native
build, and understood
making colossi and
how to use slaves, and kept crocodiles and put
baboons on the necks of giraffes to pick
fruit, and used serpent magic.
The positioning of rhyme in the four sentences here in the opening section of “The Jerboa,” is such that it calls attention to the eye, but far less to the ear & pointedly bears no visible correlation to syntax – rather, it denies such a relation – or to pauses that, for Olson or the early Creeley, would have been sharply enunciated enjambments. The result is not only the slightest linebreak known to contemporary poetry, but an ability to write what amounts to good, clean normative prose – it’s a revisitation of what I think of as Alexander Pope’s inversion of the prose poem, formal verse that is in fact (or more especially in spirit) prose. One might even call it silent rhyme.
This is not
the only kind of rhyme
The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars
bespattered jellyfish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools slide each on the other
hinges on bespattered setting up not
only jellyfish but
even more critically the caesura that occurs at that comma. It’s a surprising
word at that moment & that surprise is crucial to its affect.
antimodernist claim to
Sunday, December 28, 2003