Friday, November 19, 2004
My latest book, Under Albany, just arrived via UPS from the publisher, Salt. I would say that it looks beautiful, but that’s my face on the cover and it would be immodest. On the other hand, the book is beautiful. The thrill of a new book never gets old.
The book is a memoir constructed through the sentences of “Albany,” the first section of my poem The Alphabet. I’ve treated each sentence as tho it were a topic – as indeed most are – and written a short accompanying piece about each, ranging from a single sentence to several pages. One side benefit of this approach that I had not anticipated is that the “table of contents” feature on the Salt site is, literally, the poem “Albany”:
If the function of writing is to “express the world.” My father withheld child support, forcing my mother to live with her parents, my brother and I to be raised together in a small room. Grandfather called them niggers. I can’t afford an automobile. Far across the calm bay stood a complex of long yellow buildings, a prison. A line is the distance between. They circled the seafood restaurant, singing “We shall not be moved.” My turn to cook. It was hard to adjust my sleeping to those hours when the sun was up. The event was nothing like their report of it. How concerned was I over her failure to have orgasms? Mondale’s speech was drowned by jeers. Ye wretched. She introduces herself as a rape survivor. Yet his best friend was Hispanic. I decided not to escape to Canada. Revenue enhancement. Competition and spectacle, kinds of drugs. If it demonstrates form some people won’t read it. Television unifies conversation. Died in action. If a man is a player, he will have no job. Becoming prepared to live with less space. Live ammunition. Secondary boycott. My crime is parole violation. Now that the piecards have control. Rubin feared McClure would read Ghost Tantras at the teach-in. This form is the study group. The sparts are impeccable, though filled with deceit. A benefit reading. He seduced me. AFT, local 1352. Enslavement is permitted as punishment for crime. Her husband broke both of her eardrums. I used my grant to fix my teeth. They speak in Farsi at the corner store. YPSL. The national question. I look forward to old age with some excitement. 42 years for Fibreboard Products. Food is a weapon. Yet the sight of people making love is deeply moving. Music is essential. The cops wear shields that serve as masks. Her lungs heavy with asbestos. Two weeks too old to collect orphan’s benefits. A woman on the train asks Angela Davis for an autograph. You get read your Miranda. As if a correct line would somehow solve the future. They murdered his parents just to make the point. It’s not easy if your audience doesn’t identify as readers. Mastectomies are done by men. Our pets live at whim. Net income is down 13%. Those distant sirens down in the valley signal great hinges in the lives of strangers. A phone tree. The landlord’s control of terror is implicit. Not just a party but a culture. Copayment. He held the Magnum with both hands and ordered me to stop. The garden is a luxury (a civilization of snail and spider). They call their clubs batons. They call their committees clubs. Her friendships with women are different. Talking so much is oppressive. Outplacement. A shadowy locked facility using drugs and double-celling (a rest home). That was the Sunday Henry’s father murdered his wife on the front porch. If it demonstrates form they can’t read it. If it demonstrates mercy they have something worse in mind. Twice, carelessness has led to abortion. To own a basement. Nor is the sky any less constructed. The design of a department store is intended to leave you fragmented, off-balance. A lit drop. They photograph Habermas to hide the hairlip. The verb to be admits the assertion. The body is a prison, a garden. In kind. Client populations (cross the tundra). Off the books. The whole neighborhood is empty in the daytime. Children form lines at the end of each recess. Eminent domain. Rotating chair. The history of Poland in 90 seconds. Flaming pintos. There is no such place as the economy, the self. That bird demonstrates the sky. Our home, we were told, had been broken, but who were these people we lived with? Clubbed in the stomach, she miscarried. There were bayonets on campus, cows in India, people shoplifting books. I just want to make it to lunch time. Uncritical of nationalist movements in the Third World. Letting the dishes sit for a week. Macho culture of convicts. With a shotgun and “in defense” the officer shot him in the face. Here, for a moment, we are joined. The want-ads lie strewn on the table.
Because “Albany” was written fairly close to my starting of the project of The Alphabet – tho not actually right at the beginning – the topics it generates tend to reflect a relatively young Ron Silliman, for the most part up to the age of 32. When I reread ”Albany” itself – and I’ve been doing so in readings of late – I’m struck at its crisp, even clipped tone. I don’t think I heard that exactly when first scribing these lines. Here is a sample of what lies “under” just one of those phrases:
Her lungs heavy with asbestos.
Evelyn Schaaf was short, heavy, almost always angry and abrasive. She also had a quick sense of humor and the second loudest laugh in the world. Her husband, Valmar, a civil engineer who financed her political activities and usually served as the president of the board of whatever nonprofit they were running at the time, still liked to identify himself as a “union thug.” His laugh is louder.*
When, over the phone, I’d first asked her what CPHJ was, she laughed and responded “Two fat ladies!” In fact, there was a core of around a dozen volunteers, most of them older women, all but two widowed or divorced, who’d been galvanized around the death in San Quentin of a young man by the name of Fred Billingslea, an African American who’d suffered a psychotic break in prison—not such an unusual occurrence—and had been screaming in his cell, smearing feces on the wall until the guards came up and fired tear gas canisters into it with shotguns. One canister hit him in the throat and he went down instantly. They moved him unconscious to the prison hospital by dragging him down several flights of stairs by his ankle, his head hitting the concrete and metal steps again and again.
What made CPHJ possible as “alternative military service” was the presence of certain names on the letter head, U.S. Senator John Tunney, plus Congressmen Leo Ryan and Ron Dellums.
My first day on the job, I opened perhaps a hundred letters that had come in the mail from different prisoners, their friends and family, learning the complex code by which these letters were used to document complaints, problems, practices. At the end of the day, I was given a key to the office and told to open it up the next morning and start with the mail as soon as it arrived. But when I got to the office on the second floor of an old legal building on Fourth Street in San Rafael across from the absent original civic center, a nervous man in his mid-forties was literally cowering in the doorway. He was, he said, an escaped prisoner, at least technically. He’d been released to a halfway house at the edge of San Quentin to work for a few months prior to his parole and had obtained work in a local body shop. The boss, thinking he was doing the man a favor, told no one on the staff of the man’s situation and one of the administrative workers had invited him home, first for dinner and then to spend the night. After several years away from even the sight of women, the offer proved impossible to decline. But now, with dawn, he realized he’d be reported missing and that the police would be looking for him. “Escape” in those days tended to carry a five-year term.
I opened the office, let him in (I was probably harboring a fugitive), then called Evelyn at home, who suggested a lawyer to call. I did, explaining the situation, and he agreed to phone the prison and arrange a “surrender” if they would agree not to prosecute. They consented and all that remained was to transport the man to the lawyer’s office without him getting picked up or arrested in the mean time. So I walked down the hall to the office of Sally Soladay, another lawyer who had been instrumental in the formation of CPHJ (she was the lawyer handling the Billingslea wrongful death action for his family), explaining the circumstances all over again and they agreed that a lawyer should act as his chauffeur. One did. This was my second morning on the job.
* In the late ‘40s, when it was already apparent just how debased the Communist Party had become, Ev and Val been infatuated with Mao, some of whose ideas still wafted through the air of the office, the entire idea of a project of recreating consciousness, “socialist man.” By 1971, when I first met her, they’d decided to focus specifically on local issues and had spent most of the previous decade running the United Farm Worker support organization in Marin County. They’d met sometime around, perhaps during, the Oakland general strike in the 1940s. She’d spent the war “double-bottoming” boats with asbestos insulation, protecting them in theory from torpedoes.
Thursday, November 18, 2004
And Mark Tursi has another question:
I really like this notion of your ‘larger structures’ as a kind of territory or a way of “getting into” a certain space and a certain moment. It’s very similar, it seems to me, what Deleuze and Guattari explore in A Thousand Plateaus (at least in part); i.e. that certain kinds of language, action, or activity deterritorialize or territorialize space depending on what is crossed or traversed. And I think the playground metaphor is quite apt. It’s as though through the structures of writing, a kind of new plane of immanence is constructed (i.e. a playground), in which one can construct and deconstruct (territorialize or deterritorialize) to their hearts content, and still manage, somehow, the articulation of a life. And, this seems to gel with Charles Bernstein’s assessment of your work in Content’s Dream: “Ron Silliman has consistently written a poetry of visible borders: a poetry of shape. . . (that) may discomfort those who want a poetry primarily of personal communication, flowing freely from the inside with the words of a natural rhythm of life, lived daily.”¹ So, to continue this metaphor, I wonder this: where is the ego (the self) situated in this playground? Where does it emerge from and how? And, how does this connect to your idea of identity as always a plural condition, whereby the self is “exploded” and “challenged” that you have suggested elsewhere? Or, does this conflict with your prior ideas about self; i.e. is the subject’s emergence from “one’s life in one’s writing” a kind of reification of identity (i.e. a kind of subjectification)?
“Exploded” is a loaded term, so, if I ever said that, I’d try to use a more value-neutral characterization today. The word that comes to my mind is discontinuous – we experience the world not as a stream of consciousness, but rather as a series of far more finite events. Let me give an example that will show what I mean, one that comes from an activity that has been compared with my writing before, riding the bus. There is nothing quite as perceptibly jarring as pulling the cord on a crowded bus – a miniature society that changes at every stop – and then stepping off onto a cold empty street corner. The transition is immediate & the shift – even just from motion to stillness, indoor air to outdoor air – is total. I’m using this example because literally this is where I first noticed and recognized this – if you pay close attention to the phenomenological experience of daily life, it is filled with such junctures & they’re always abrupt. The phone rings and suddenly you’re no longer alone. You step into a public restroom only to discover that it is its own milieu, there are dozens of people there going about their business. In this sense, changing one’s shoes can trigger a radical re/visioning of whatever else is going on.
Nowadays, one need not even resort to such out-of-the-house experiences to see that one’s consciousness is not a unitary continuous experience. Just turn on CNN or MSNBC – there is the talking head, alongside which there are graphics and invariably some key words to “identify” the topic of the story. In one lower corner, you have the logo of the network, often with some promotional language wrapped literally around it. And then alongside that you have a news crawl. You may even have, during the daytime, a second crawl of stock prices. All that simultaneously on one screen – which of those images are you watching? All of them, and discretely – it’s not that hard to do.
In 1973, Frank Morris released a nine-minute animation called Frank Film that I’m sure I first saw as part of one of the Canyon Cinematheque – it was still “Canyon” in those days – shows at the San Francisco Art Institute. It was a rapid romp through all of art history, and you can still find it being taught today in history of animation or history of film courses – I googled two classes online that had paired it with Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, one of which also included Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. What I remember 30-plus years later aren’t the visuals – Morris, I believe, went on to become an Oscar-winning editor in Hollywood – but the sound track, which was two or more voices talking simultaneously. It was immediately clear to me, listening to that movie, that I could hear two lines of thought simultaneously with no trouble. I must have seen Frank Film two or three times when it first came out – it had a huge impact on me and is one of the secret sources no doubt for Ketjak. I would still list it as my favorite “poetry film” ever, even tho I don’t think Morris thought it was about poetry at all.
Now I had been reading Joyce & Faulkner a lot in the years immediately preceding the release of Frank Film, and I was slogging my way through Stein’s Making of Americans, and the flaw that I saw in every one of these projects – even Stein’s – was the presumption of a continuous consciousness. From my perspective, it doesn’t stream, rather it pulses or throbs, it’s just like a heartbeat and I’ll wager that’s not accidental. So what I was working on when I began Ketjak was precisely an attempt to identify a form that would enable me to break away from the habits of continuity – which really are the path of least resistance in any work of writing, and always feel like it – and the predetermined (“artificial,” “inorganic,” “non-spontaneous”) location of sentences in that work allowed me to draft my original sentences in a way that then placed them into this wider framework, this mix of multiple lines of ongoing thought, sometimes contradicting, sometimes overlapping.
I have enough friends who are psychologists, psychiatrists & psychoanalysts to know that your “where is the ego” question is something of a bottomless pit. It probably makes more sense for me to say that “the ego” is not something I have a problem with when thinking about my work.² My sense is that it moves – it is literally what is felt by the reading mind (the writing one too!) as the point of immanence as it passes through the text, through the sentence, as it sweeps left to right across the letters of any word, even within the letter of a word. Right now you can feel it just reading this, precisely because it’s what you bring to the text, that sense of presence (because you are present), that little light of consciousness that is never stable & always moving, point to point.
¹ Bernstein, Charles. Content's Dream: Essays 1975-1084, p. 408.
²Yes, I am sure that there are people who think I have a Big Problem with my ego, but that’s not what you mean by your question.
Wednesday, November 17, 2004
I’m doing an interview with/for Frances Raven & it begins with some questions about blogging.
(1) When did you start blogging?
This one is really easy, because I’ve maintained the same web site – with archives – since day one. The answer is August 31, 2002. I’d thought about the idea, off & on, for a couple of months before – and with some serious concentration during the weeks immediately prior to starting, when I was mostly away from PCs altogether, staying in a cabin on Brier Island, off of what’s known as the Digby Neck in the southwest corner of Nova Scotia.
(2) How have blogs changed your poetry?
Suddenly the questions get harder. In terms of my writing, as such, I’m not sure that it has. While I’ve been blogging the past 2+ years, I’ve been finishing one long poem project (I still have some work to do typing up the final section of The Alphabet, but the writing itself is done) and thinking about starting another, Universe. A lot of my blogging has been a meditation on how to think through issues that will arise in Universe, but I’m still so new to the poem itself – really a cycle of 360 distinct works, each roughly booklength (albeit “poetry book” length rather than “novel” book length) – that it’s impossible for me to know quite yet just how this is playing out.
On the other hand, blogging has given me a renewed visibility as a poet that I haven’t had since the heyday of language poetry in the late ‘70s & early ‘80s – I’ve been asked to give more readings over the past two years than over the previous six or seven combined. Which actually leads me to your next question.
(3) How have they changed poetry in general, if at all?
There are, in the blogroll on my weblog, just under 400 weblogs listed, of which something like 97 percent are poetry blogs. With some exceptions, say, Nick Piombino, Stephen Vincent, Barrett Watten, the vast majority of these blogs are being produced by relatively young poets, or at least poets who are relatively new in terms of their presence in the larger public poetry community. For a number of them, blogging appears to have led directly to the publication of a first or second book. In short, it’s become a mechanism for an entire generation of new poets to reach out & discuss poetry at whatever depth they find comfortable. That, in & of itself, is a good thing, even a great thing. Tho, I have to admit, I suspect that there remains a gender bias in poetry blogs that is skewed male & which replicates that which has existed for generations in poetry.
(4) Are there any precursors to blogs in the poetry world?
Absolutely. My interest in Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book was rekindled after many years precisely because of its relationship to the dynamics of blogging – that use of writing as a mechanism for sorting out thinking, especially writing which is then made public in some fashion. I think all notebooks can be thought of as close kin to blogs & I do agree with Mayakovsky that one definition of the modern poet is the person who goes around with a notebook (I tend to carry more than one around with me, especially if I include my Palm Pilot among them – I was down in Baltimore last weekend with three at hand). I tend to think of Walden as the first blog, but you will note that someone else has been arguing for the diary of Samuel Pepys.
(5) What are your favorite poetry blogs?
This is an impossible question. It can change day to day, week to week. I value thoughtfulness & diligence more than, say, wit or cutting humor, and tend to be most drawn to those blogs that exhibit these qualities, such as those by Chris Murray, Heriberto Yepez, Jonathan Mayhew & K. Silem Mohammad. But it can be difficult to sustain that level of focus for any great length of time – it’s an effort – and a number of the very best poetry blogs of 2002 – such as those by Tim Yu & Laura Willey – have been largely dormant of late. In Yu’s case, he moved to start his first real teaching job and hasn’t been heard from since. One more case of the academy proving to be the enemy of poetry.
There was no sixth question. I wonder why. It’s absence reminded me of the internet equivalent of M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough film, The Sixth Sense: I see dead links. Is there a connection?
(7) What would you change about blogs to make them better at presenting poetry?
None of the blogging programs that I’ve tested have been good at formatting poetry if & when the poem takes even the slightest step from the left margin, let alone does anything unusual with fonts. I’m not a web designer by vocation, by any means, but I don’t think that a poet should have to be one. I’ve learned how to muddle through in Blogger, but there is a lot to be desired. (For example, I cannot figure out why the gratuitous “Blog search” tool at the head of my weblog produces itself more or less correctly in Firefox, but not in Internet Explorer.)
(8) What are the differences between poetic blogs and political blogs?
All poetry blogs are inherently political, even (especially!) those that imagine themselves to be apolitical or neutral. None of the political blogs are inherently poetic, tho. So it’s not a two-way street. When I invoke politics in my weblog, it’s part of my poet-as-citizen role, but I’m not sure that it necessarily follows that there is an inherent citizen-as-poet role that might then proceed in the other direction.
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
Two other elements need to be added to my little linguistics for poets curriculum. The first is the application of a single simple idea, the Parsimony Principle, a concept as old as Occam’s Razor, tho in linguistics normally traced to the work of Charles Fillmore, Paul Kay & Mary Catherine O’Connor. The principle, which in science implies that the simplest explanation is always best, because adding unnecessary extraneous details is a terrific way of introducing errors, has a practical corollary in the reading or listening of any person – the mind will always bring together ideas in ways that “make sense.” If a narrative or figurative explanation is conceivable, then that is how the language-consuming mind will conceive it.
I go on about this at length in The New Sentence, a book that is still in print, but for the sake of this discussion lets look at Chomsky’s “meaningless” sentence, Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. It doesn’t take much to make this a figurative, but comprehensible statement. All one needs to do is interpret “green” not as a color but as implying young, immature, incipient, as in That is a green youth. Let’s assign an example of such a colorless green idea, for example the idea that marriage might be available to all people, rather than constrained only for a few. Marriage is not the most colorful idea. However, we’ve seen that there is quite a bit of opposition to this colorless green idea when it gets applied to gays & lesbians, so it is possible that, for a time at least (e.g., the next four years), this idea might go underground where it might ferment or percolate or, as Chomsky puts it so well, sleep furiously. Thus Colorless green ideas sleep furiously is a perfectly reasonable expression of the pent-up frustration of gay activists to the present political context.
The Parsimony Principle is important, because it is the engine that drives interpretation & thus is at the heart of close reading, the single essential critical tool that every poet needs to possess. There is no way to govern how a reader will take a given statement, but one can learn to control how much, or how little, room for the introduction of extraneous context exists in a given passage. Again, there’s a lengthy demonstration of this in The New Sentence, employing a poem by Rae Armantrout.
The second element is Cognitive Linguistics, which today is the dominant mode of post-Chomskyan work in that field, especially the advances being made around cognitive blends, discourse frames and metaphor. Cognitive blending is the process through which the parsimony principle functions, and it can literally be diagrammed for something like Colorless green ideas as follows:
Input I¹ is the actual phrase as used. But since there is an apparent contradiction between Colorless and green, the language-consuming mind imports Input I², suggesting that green refers not to a color, but to a stage of development. Generic Space is the literal meaning of the individual words in the phrase – it’s where Chomsky goes with his example, but in fact the reading/listening mind, having imported the second input, warranted or not, arrives at the Blend, which makes perfect sense. This process is repeated at a second, higher level in my example when I import the current political climate as an input that now enables me to create a meaning or blend in which Colorless green ideas sleep furiously may be a gaudy figure of speech, but is hardly the epitome of meaninglessness that Chomsky first imagined.
There is an enormous amount now being written about cognitive linguistics, of which my personal favorite happens to be Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Lakoff’s works in particular are of value, not only because he has done so much work on the problems of metaphor, but also because he reads & understands contemporary poetry. In fact, it was poetry that first brought Lakoff, then a math major undergrad at MIT, to linguistics. When he took an elective in the subject, his teacher just happened to be . . . Roman Jakobson!
Monday, November 15, 2004
A couple of people have written in the past week about the cryptic comments I made with regard to Ruth Altmann, to wit:
I pointed out to Kasey Mohammad in my response to his comment re the Brainard review on Thursday that a form like this is really the horizontal axis of language – to borrow Jakobson’s orientation for a moment – putting all of the writing on the vertical axis, the selection of words, phrases, etc. Yet Altman also shows here how important the dexterity of combination can be in making this work. So, yes, the mode here is the horizontal axis at one level, yet in addition to her absolute deftness with the vertical, Altmann is demonstrating a second superimposed horizontal axis. Is one of them the image, the other the ghost? It’s an interesting problem and suggests some limitation about Jakobson’s model I’d not noticed before.
I need to remind myself that I can be so comfortable with my own shorthand that I become unnecessarily inscrutable. What exactly do I mean by horizontal & vertical? What axis?
Good questions, actually. One of the ways in which the moniker “language poet” does apply to me, I guess, is that I’m comfortable with linguistics, or at least moderately comfortable. And while I can point to dozens, even hundreds, of excellent poets who think that linguistics is to poetry what ornithology is to birds, I’ve always wondered about people who didn’t show some curiosity about the tools that they’re using in their art, day in & day out. Imagine a painter ignorant of color.
I was lucky, of course. My one college linguistics teacher was Edward van Aelstyn, also a poet (tho more of a theater person, ultimately) and co-editor for awhile of Coyote’s Journal, which in the early 1960s was the best poetry journal in the U.S. It was van Aelstyn who talked me into starting a little magazine, which after a few false starts turned into Tottel’s.
Just 21, I had recently started at SF State & had already been attempting to wade through the linguistics texts of Noam Chomsky on my own, which is rather like swimming in syrup with no land in sight. So coming to van Aelstyn, who in one classroom exercise began reading aloud a section of Moby Dick aloud (“The Grand Armada” chapter if I remember correctly) and – to see if we could recognize the shift in discursive cues – switched mid-passage into Wichita Vortex Sutra, added some serious grounding, but most especially the sort of grounding that a young poet would find pertinent. Alas, our collective student projects – to construct a language in teams of three or four – dissolved in the chaos of the 1968 SF State strike.
But afterwards, I concluded a variety of things. One, I wasn’t interested necessarily in ever becoming a linguist as such. What I wanted instead was to find those threads within the linguistic tradition that related directly to what I was thinking about as a poet. Thirty six years hence, that still seems like a pretty good guide.
Over time, I came up with a sense of a basic poet’s curriculum on linguistics – or at least those texts that I found had proven the most meaningful to me. So let me offer this rough sketch as to how I would proceed, were I young poet & “knowing what I know now.” Then I’ll come back & address that question of axes & orientations.
I would start by reading two different texts simultaneously – one a classic in the history of linguistics, the other, literally, any good current undergraduate introduction to linguistics textbook (the one I had, Dwight Bolinger’s Aspects of Language, has probably been superceded in the undergraduate curriculum, tho it was in use for several decades on college campuses). The classic is Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, a fabulous & problematic text, fabulous in fact precisely because it is problematic. Saussure himself never lived to write a book on the topic, so a number of his students, who attended his course by this title during the three times he taught it between 1906 & 1911 compiled their notes and published that under his name. This of course makes two presumptions – first that the students equally understood what the professor was saying and second that the course (& Saussure’s thinking) was the same during each of the three classes. There is considerable evidence that neither of these presumptions is true. The result is a text that is not only the origin of contemporary linguistics, but a mystery as well, one open to a great deal of interpretation.
There is another text I would read alongside my basic textbook – tho one I wouldn’t start until I’d completed the Saussure – Roman Jakobson’s Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning. This is easier said than done – tho published by MIT, and a volume of seminal importance in the history of ideas in the 20th century, Six Lectures is listed by its publisher as being out of print. Abebooks.com lists just six copies – two of them in the U.K. – available from used book dealers. The lectures are a series of talks given by Jakobson at the New School. One of the attendees was a young French sociologist who had been doing anthropological fieldwork in Brazil & found himself stranded by the Second World War, Claude Levi-Strauss. According to the latter, this was the Aha Experience that led him into organizing myths as tho they were part of a structural system. The whole history of structuralism (of which post-structuralism is but a part) was to evolve out of that initial encounter.
Jakobson I’m told isn’t read much by undergraduates any more – which is a shame, if true. All of his books are interesting and some of the works on Jakobson, such as Linda Waugh’s piece in the 1980 issue of Poetics Today devoted to his work, are themselves exceptionally useful syntheses of his positions. Indeed, it is Waugh’s essay that I still think of as the clearest summary on the six functions of language, which I in turn have adapted and modified somewhat because of how I think of it when I consider language and its relationship to poetry.
Jakobson, it’s worth noting, started out as a poet & critic around the Russian Futurists & their allies the Russian Formalists – he literally knew Mayakovsky & Shklovsky. Later, as the Soviet revolution was starting to consolidate into Stalinism, Jakobson taught at the Prague School of Linguistics where one of his student turned out to be René Wellek. Thus ideas that began with the Russian Formalists echo in a bastardized form through the fog of the New Critics, who can been as applying an attenuated version of formalist thinking as a strategy for advancing a conservative – even reactionary – aesthetic.*
The two linguistic concepts that I use most often, and which turn up here in the blog with some regularity, the six functions of language and two axes (one vertical, the other horizontal) in any statement, can be traced directly to Jakobson. The six functions of language – not just poetic language, but any language – can be viewed as a trio of opposing pairs: addresser & addressee, signifier & signified, contact & code. Jakobson argues that the poetic function is that which turns everyone’s attention to the signifier. That’s true enough as far as it goes, although there is so much more to say beyond this initial claim that it’s easy to imagine this as a pure endorsement for sound poetry and/or vizpo, which isn’t quite the case (if anything, it points up the impoverished intellectual conditions that characterize much of both tendencies – but that’s another blog for another day). I like to think of these functions as facets of a three-dimensional circumstance – a visual analog would be a die. One face always points up – the signifier, let’s say – which means that it’s opposite (the signified) must lie face down. Further, if we approach this three-dimensional figure at any sort of angle, we will then discover two secondary facets as being visible. In each instance, their opposite is hidden or at least muted. If you want to know how I think about language, theoretically, that metaphor of the six-sided die is something you need to deal with. I do think about it a lot.
All of these six functions have to do with the nature of speech & speaking. The two axes have to do with the grammatic integration of any statement – let’s use Chomsky’s example of a “meaningless” sentence, Colorless green ideas sleep furiously (tho it could just as easily be The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog). The horizontal axis is the domain of syntax, the gears of noun & verb, adjective & adverb, meshing into place. The vertical axis is the domain of word selection – the choice of green over mauve or tope, for example, the choice of sleep versus snooze.
When I wrote about Ruth Altmann that a list poem puts “all of the writing on the vertical axis,” I was thinking of the list poem as being as extreme in its own domain as Chomsky’s nonce sample is in its own. Chomsky intends here to prove that sentences can be grammatical without being meaningful, but accomplishes this only using an impoverished concept of “meaning” (i.e. “happens in the ‘real’ world”). List poems, when (but only when) they use completely parallel syntactic forms, would thrust almost all of the choices about “what to write” into the process of word selection. Altmann, tho, varies her phrases without giving up her list. Her principle commitment to the list lies in the absence of verbs – this is a series of noun phrases, ranging from a single word (Soap) to something far more complex (green paper money, / rough and torn from use). The order of elements in this Altmann’s is both temporal & narrative, but what really struck me most of all was how she varies the phrase structures and uses line breaks to gently control the poem’s sense of forward movement. Thus the form of the poem is not the strict parallelism of many list poems – noun phrase, noun phrase, noun phrase – but something far more complex. Even representing each noun phrase by the number of words used wouldn’t do just to the complexity of each or how so many interact with line enjambments. That’s what I meant when I suggest that Altmann was able to demonstrate two simultaneous horizontal axes – the strict grammatical one & a second characterized by length, internal pauses & the like. A week later, it still excites me to think about all that she’s doing in that poem.
* One of the reasons language poetry, as a critical project, was sometimes caricatured as a kind of neo-New Criticism could be traced to the fact that these poets in the 1970s, like the agrarians who called themselves New Critics, were utilizing terms & strategies that had their origins in the same place, tho to radically different ends. Thus when Habermas called for a new modernity, one that when back to modernism’s roots & proceeded without the deviations that had so crippled the first generation modernist critics, this return to Russian Futurism on the part of langpo struck me as being the closest approximation in practice to what Habermas was after.