Saturday, September 25, 2004
There are now a number of accounts (plus comments upon accounts) of the Zukfosky 100 conference on the web. For detailed & accurate reporting, I seriously recommend Josh Corey. More oblique in their relationship to the event itself are Steve Vincent’s notes. Not particularly related to the conference, tho you might think it was, is the little flame war that has grown up in viral mode among the comments to my Tuesday, September 21st blognote.
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Not quite a blog, but in parallel mode is 1-Year Plan, a web project initiated this month by Barrett Watten. He states his intentions as follows:
I have been planning over the past year to develop a writing project that would take place in time, on a regular basis, and that would publish its findings on the internet. The writing would be a record of the time in which it was written, and would act on and change that time—if only as a matter of understanding. The writing would hope to change itself, as writing, within the time it was written. I wanted to specify a duration for the writing of one year, and a frequency of roughly one text per week. If all goes well, at the end of the year there will be an index of about fifty texts, with commentary and links.
Given that Watten has the best critical mind of my generation, you know this is going to be quite a ride. I’ve added it to the blogroll even if it isn’t quite a blog.
Even further afield is Lanny Quarles’ new Boppo Blog, literally named for the term coined by my mother – when she was a toddler – for potholders. My mother will be appalled.
If she still had her eyesight, tho, she would think that first boppo looked very cool.
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I’m going to be in Scottsdale, Arizona, for a few days. I may blog while I’m there, but then again I may not.
Friday, September 24, 2004
While Alan Golding, Norman Finkelstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Bob Perelman covered Louis Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry from a wide range of perspectives, I was struck that not one of them addressed what has always seemed to me to be its most visible formal feature – the presence of a low dash, an underscore at the head of every example. Thus:
Zukofsky himself addresses it only in a footnote, albeit the lone footnote in Test:
This space may be used by the reader who enjoys marking up his copy for evaluating the compared examples of similar object matter under each cardinal number in some such way as great, good, fair, poor.
Flinching as we note the gendered language that is so 1940s, this smirking footnote suggests that this line is a kind of joke. This makes some sense on the first page, perhaps, with two poems, but the device is carried through for each of the anthology’s 186 pieces. That suggests that Test might be read as a kind of parody of a textbook, and at some very distant level, that also may be an element here, but it’s important to keep in mind that this form of satire is in fact far more commonplace today that it was 56 years ago – let alone 70 years ago, when much of Test appears to have been put together.
But these seem like uncharacteristically broad strokes for a poet so attentive to particulars that he would send typesetters individual instructions on the number of dots to use for each ellipsis (thus the occasional two-dot ellipsis is neither a typo nor an antiquarian convention but an instance of ellipsis interuptus). I think we need to look instead at where these lines are and what they in face do, formally. Boldfaced and in a larger san serif type than the “body text” of these poems, these lines transform the numbering of these texts from functioning as separators into serving instead as surrogate titles.
What after all is a title? What is its relation to the body of a text? Zukofsky after all is a poet whose major work “A” has a title in quotation marks because it quotes the first word of the poem itself, a strategy Zukofsky employed in his earliest acknowledged work, “Poem beginning ‘The’”.*
The poems in display in A Test of Poetry are unidentified in the first & third sections of the anthology, but even in the second, where Zukofsky names poet & poem & comments after each grouping, the work’s author & title are appended after the body text, essentially as a kind of textual “tail” at its lower right.
Yet our eyes are attuned to see, feel titles even when, as is so often the case for me, we mostly read them after we read the text, particularly for texts of the size included in this anthology, most of which are sonnet length or less – that Keats excerpt above is complete.
Titles, as Walter Benjamin has noted, operate in one of two ways – they name the work as a whole or else they function as a caption, foregrounding a single internal element within the text (think, for example, of David Ignatow, an obsessive captionist, most often farming his last line for a title word or phrase). These curious lines of Zukofsky’s, however, suspend the title as a name or caption, while retaining its role as a graphic weight at the head of a text, leaving the numbering system for the most part to generate groupings.
So that line at the top of the poem is a title . . . performing the role the eye expects a title to play. This acknowledges that titles have functions that are extra-linguistic & that the graphic elements of the printed text themselves carry a kind of meaning. Grouped with their numbers, these lines fulfill one part of the social contract of the printed text.
Think, for instance of all those poems entitled “Untitled,” or where editors have, as often they do with Emily Dickinson, imposed titles or simply boldfaced first lines. Each is an acknowledgement of this same line as we find in A Test of Poetry, the dark brow of the poem.
* There are, we learned from Tim Woods, even earlier poems published in student journals at Columbia under the ironic pseudonym, Dunn Wyth.
Thursday, September 23, 2004
The first panel at the LZ / 100 conference was a superb affair on the topic of A Test of Poetry, Zukofsky’s curious – and relatively brief – anthology of exemplars, groups of poems clustered together, anonymously in two of its three sections, tho with a pedagogical grid at the rear. It was an all-star panel, with Alan Golding, Norman Finkelstein, Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Bob Perelman. All four talks were excellent, but two fundamentally transformed my understanding of this cryptic book originally published in 1948, but largely constructed during the 1930s – two very different moments in the history of American & world politics for this most political of late modernists.
First, Golding, as often he is want to do (and a feature of his critical writing that I admire & have mimicked in my own work more than once), went back to counting specifics, in this case books, literally copies, both of Test & other volumes Golding argued were in some sense comparable. Thus, for example, Golding recounted the history of editions of Brooks & Warren’s market making Understanding Poetry, first issued in 1938, but traceable in terms of sales only from 1949 to 1976, a period during which some 294,000 copies were released.
Golding reads A Test of Poetry – and indeed Pound’s ABC of Reading (first published in 1934 but which by 1967 had resulted in editions totaling less than 30,000 copies) as competitors in an academic textual market, one created & saturated by Understanding Poetry. I wonder, if only because in my life, coming into the writing of poetic theory in & around 1965, an alternative non- or even anti-academic tradition already existed, including not just these books, but D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, William Carlos Williams’ In the American Grain, Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, Human Universe & The Mayan Letters, the critical works of Gertrude Stein & Laura Riding. The idea – implicit in Golding’s comparison – that the target audience envisioned for these books was so many undergraduates seems to me problematic, more so especially for those volumes that were written or at least begun before Brooks & Warren functionally created the academic market segment.
My test simply is this: would these books still have been written if the academic market never existed? In every case, the answer is a resounding Yes. Indeed, without exception, all the works of poetics that I would consider of primary value were composed without one eye – let alone both – fixated on the textbook marketplace. An example just beyond the boundaries of critical composition, per se, would be the late Don Allen’s The New American Poetry, aimed at reaching & influencing an audience of poets. A counter example, though, just to demonstrate the impact of target audiences, would be Allen’s own later collection (co-edited with George Butterick), The Postmoderns, intended for undergraduates but more useful as a demonstration of how the same writing that once turned the world of poetry on its ear can be presented as lifeless, simply through its desire everywhere to be representative rather than polemic.
Even if, as Golding notes, the first draft of Test was constructed by Zukofsky in a series of 16 blue examination books, it doesn’t follow that that this work was gathered – or published – for undergraduates.
One question here that I would take back to Golding & to his own intellectual project is precisely this division between polemic & pedagogic writing. Polemic writing presumes its reader is a peer, an equal, someone to be persuaded the way one persuades a neighbor in an election. Pedagogic writing, however, presumes just the opposite, that there is a hierarchy of knowledge, information & meaning and that expository writing is fundamentally the transmission of proprietary data to an audience of blank slates.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ talk unveiled the constructedness of the examples used by Louis Zukofsky in A Test of Poetry. Rather than being complete texts or even complete quotations from extended passages of longer works, Zukofsky often built these lyrics, at times using ellipses to indicate gaps of entire pages are two or more passages are yoked out of context in order to foreground elements that may not have been prominent in the original.
Thus, for example, political rage & class resentment become major themes in what appears to be “classic literature,” an act of turning the courtly constraints of literary history on their head. Indeed, at one point in the 1930s, Zukofsky was working on two parallel anthologies, the other being A Worker’s Anthology. While this second project was abandoned – its existence is documented in a 54-page manuscript in the Basil Bunting archives – 35 of its 38 poems ultimately find their way into Test, 33 of them in exactly the form they took in the Worker’s manuscript.
This, for me, was one of those wonderful moments when doing one’s homework – which DuPlessis executes impeccably – yields whole new layers of the work at hand. The result is revelatory – I’ll never look at A Test of Poetry the same way again.
Tuesday, September 21, 2004
From the perspective of its organizers, the Louis Zukofsky / 100 – it sounds like an auto race, or possibly a mass arrest (“Free the LZ 100!”) – was wildly successful, drawing 250 attendees when 70 would have been considered a very respectable turnout. Indeed, the conference closed registration several days in advance because the numbers had reached the physical limits of the rooms involved at Columbia & Barnard.
Yet of the 250 attendees, no more than 30 appeared to be women — & hardly a random selection. Marjorie Perloff, Lee Ann Brown, Joan Retallack, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Madeline Gins, Anne Waldman, Barbara Cole, Marjorie Welish, Jennifer Ashton, Erica Hunt, Ulla Dydo, Susan Wheeler, Jessica Smith, Ruth Jennison, Meredith Quartermain, Tonya Foster, Helene Aji, Jena Osman, Diane Rosenberg, Brenda Iijima, all poets & scholars who practice, with no hesitation or apology, their role as intellectuals.
To be at a conference in 2004 in which the attendees are over 80 percent male is unsettling. An absolute majority of poets writing & publishing today are women, & the academy – this was after all a professional conference of scholars even more than it was a gathering of poets, tho it was also always a collaboration of both sides of the community. Even the academy, at least the human sciences, hasn’t been 80 percent male since the 1960s. I was told that the imbalance would have been worse had not the organizers done some active outreach to several women speakers on the agenda.
All I can conclude is that there is something about Louis Zukofsky &/or his work to account for this gendered response. But what?
Sharing a cab with Marjorie Perloff Friday night, we discussed this. It is not, she reassures me, that women don’t choose to present or attend academic conferences. Zukofsky, she suggests, is not only a sexist – a man of his generation, born in 1904 – but also ideally suited to be taken as a “man’s poet.” (I envision Robert Bly doing his Iron John routine & try to imagine LZ likewise – it’s a preposterous image, tho it’s also clearly not what Perloff was suggesting.) One possible reading of this is that the tight-nit family represented in his poems is hardly the valorized ideal Zukofsky himself portrays it as. The wife types the poems, makes possible the careers of husband & son alike. She even finishes LZ’s long poem for him!
Harder to fathom is whether or how LZ’s difficulty in his poetry is, or may be, more “male” in some sense than, say, the uses of difficulty in the poetry & prose of Gertrude Stein. Does Zukofsky’s use of number as a method for inbuilding opacity differ materially from Stein’s more improvisational interventions into linguistic and grammatic surfaces? Is it a question of methodology?
I don’t know and I’m pretty sure I’m not the right person to try and answer that question. Barbara Cole gave a talk that I didn’t hear at the conference on just this topic, or rather on the “dim tide” of feminist criticism and gendered readings of his work. Her abstract is online at the LZ / 100 website, but I wish I’d heard the entire talk.
Monday, September 20, 2004
While I was off on a 60-hour trip to New York City for the LZ / 100 . . .
· My office at home was flooded by the remnants of Ivan as it passed through Pennsylvania (tho apparently not nearly as badly as John Taggart’s house)
· I saw Harvey Shapiro &Hugh Seidman read for the first time ever
· I realized just how much Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-21 was faux Shakespeare
· As a result, I realized that the 24-book scheme of “A” was derived from Joyce’s Ulysses
· Burton Hatlen & I found ourselves in the same hotel, the austere Riverside Towers, & had breakfast together twice, once at Zabar’s & once up at the Pinnacle Deli just off the Columbia campus (advantage Zabar’s)
· The New York City subway was shut down due to flooding, compliments of Ivan
· I saw the best minds of my generation arrive drenched at the conference – Don Wellman & Charles Alexander appeared to have swum
· One of the most highly anticipated talks of the conference – Peter Whalen’s “Literary Paternity and the Psychological Residue of Abortion: Lorine Niedecker and Louis Zukofsky” – failed to materialize
· So the audience discussed it anyway
· Robert Kelly described how the Zukofskys wrapped each and every book & magazine in their apartment on Willow Street in Brooklyn in the 1958 equivalent of plastic baggies & how their ashtrays would be emptied after every cigarette, so that they could chain-smoke all day and still have spotless ashtrays
· Much was made of the pronunciation of “A” – ā or ă (with lots of regional variants for the latter) – there was a lot of sentiment for the latter, given that the title is a quotation of the poem’s first word (hence the quotation marks)
· The Guardian, the progressive British daily paper, ran a very positive review of Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems
· I received copies of the following works:
o Born 2 by Allison Cobb
o A Reading Spicer & 18 Sonnets by Beverly Dahlen
o TV Eye by Todd Baron
o Slowly but Dearly by Norman Fischer
o Chantry by Elizabeth Treadwell
o While Sleeping by Bill Lavender
o Architecture Against Death / Architecture Contre la Mort, a two-volume (plus CD) double issue of the journal Interfaces devoted to the work of Arakawa & Madeline Gins
o The Labor of Division in Society by Joshua Schuster
· I returned home to discover that Krishna & Colin had taken care of the flood entirely by themselves (Big Thanks!)
· A stack of books had arrived in the Saturday post & were awaiting me:
o Instrumentality by Ravi Shankar
o Up and Up by Ted Greenwald
o Shut Up and Shut Down by Mark Nowak
o The California Poem by Eleni Sikelianos
o plus the latest Rain Taxi, aptly named this month