Saturday, June 11, 2005
Happy 23rd birthday to the fellow who, through his example, first inspired me to become a blogger!
Friday, June 10, 2005
Roman Jakobson characterized language as having six distinct functions. In fact, the functions form three sets of pairs. Modified very slightly to employ terms readily understood by an audience of poets, these would be:
· addresser and addressee
· contact and code
· signifier and signified
Addresser and addressee are clear enough, as are, I hope, signifier and signified. Contact is that element of psychic interaction between source & recipient that makes communication possible in the first place. Code is the abstract structure of language itself. In the nearly 30 years since I first encountered Jakobson’s Six Functions, thesis, I have never come across a speech act, an instance of language that could not be referred to as foregrounding at least one of these. Even an incoherent shout – WHA? – stresses the role of contact, without which (even in an empty room, or an empty forest) there would be no impulse to shout.
Every utterance or act of language, according to Jakobson, foregrounds one of these six functions, de-emphasizing the others to various degrees. In fact, one might note that whichever of the six functions is foregrounded, its “pair” invariably will be the one most muted. In this regard, one can make a common visual analogy to a simple playing die, another six-sided figure always organized by pairs (in its case, the numbers on the opposite sides always add up to seven, so that when the “6” is up, the “1” is down, when the “5” is up, the 2 is down, etc.).
Jakobson has a term for those works that foreground the signifier – “the poetic function.” And it is certainly true that from Homer to Bob Grenier, works of poetry have called attention to the presence of the signifier – the sound of phonemes, the materiality of the graphic text, etc. – as have no other genre of literature. Visual poetry & sound poetry function largely, although not necessarily exclusively, on this plane. But, Jakobson would argue, the same is true also for any of the Boston Brahmins – Cal Lowell or Anne Sexton, say – or any poet of whom William Logan or Billy Collins might approve. They complicate matters perhaps, placing a secondary emphasis on the signified, the referential world discussed by their poet, just as a composer of dramatic monologues – Robert Browning or Richard Howard – puts a secondary emphasis on the addresser. Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantras – with their invented “lion language”¹ – GRAHHHRRRR – foregrounds contact, implying that it need not be restricted to human contact.
Historically, Jakobson systematized Saussure’s conceptualization of linguistics, giving birth to structural linguistics and setting the ground that Chomsky (and later the post-Chomskians) would all build upon. Jakobson had an unusual – even ironic – role with regard to poetry & the intellectual history of the 20th century, having begun in fact as a poet & critic around the Russian Futurists & formalists during the period of the Russian Revolution, an acquaintance of Mayakovsky & Shklovsky, Brik & Kruchenykh. One can see the formalist influence in how Jakobson understood Saussure. Jakobson escaped Stalinism by moving west to head up the Prague School of Linguistics, where one of his students, René Wellek, would later surface in the
All of which is a roundabout preface to note that, on Monday, when I discussed how one might read the poetry of Clark Coolidge – especially work from the early 1970s pieces – I never suggested that Coolidge’s poetry was meaningless. Quite the opposite is true. The excerpts chosen from The Maintains may foreground sound – that old “poetic function” of the signifier once again – but the words chosen are not without their schematic frames, literally their meaning. That these don’t lead to a vulgar figured narrative at the level of the signified does not suggest that these lines are meaningless, only that that function of language was most evidently effaced – a predictable result in any work that foregrounds the opposite side of the signifier/signified coin.
Further, the frames (or “meanings” if you must) around individual words, such as
laurel ratio sharp or hard
instrumental triple to or fro
granule in award
one to whom is made
as the near wheel
stay, for the most part, close to the word itself, while the sound pattern of the passage is heavily defined by the highly syncopated sense of the line. So you have referential meaning fixating at one level, while the sonic structure resolves on a whole other level. Which becomes, I would argue, completely visible here precisely when Coolidge unfurls lines that are clearly clauses from larger stretches of grammar – one to whom is made or as the near wheel – instances where that “close-to-the-word” feel of language from the other lines suddenly pulls back into these larger structures.
None of which is apt to be terribly perceptible or interesting if you define meaning solely as that which exists along the axis of the signified. There is nothing wrong with the signified, mind you, but it has been so heavily exploited for centuries that a kind of aphasia has crept in that confuses it with the linguistic structures that enact that diorama of an implied universe. One of the advantages of language poetry, at least for a time, was that it noticed – and made perceptible to others – that the five remaining functions of language were also always already present & variously active whenever language was being used. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that people who presume meaning exists solely on the axis of the signified miss literally 5/6ths of everything they read. This is a condition much more devastating than color blindness, for even the profoundly color-blind can tell the difference between dark & light.
In the title essay of his first great book of critical writing, Total Syntax, Barrett Watten performs an extended analysis of the work of Clark Coolidge, centering around the period in which The Maintains & Polaroid were written. It is worth revisiting that book, especially pages 88 through 106, to see all the ways Watten demonstrates reference & meaning active in the work. Even in just the passages & material I’ve posted this week, we need to ask ourselves, for example, about the context of titles. The Maintains, for example, carries implications in a variety of manners. Some of these include
- an allusion to music, where it is the drummer (Coolidge’s instrument) who maintains the beat
- an allusion to the dictionary, a primary source for this project, which maintains all possible meanings right there in alphabetical order
- an echo of any noun that ends on –ains – the one I always hear is The Plantains, but I’m a self-confessed banana junky
- an inference as to what becomes of language when words are pulled up from their contexts – The Remains
- an ironic reference to the question of development in a literary work, since this one will develop through the gradual elimination of words with clear referential schema, to the zero degree writing of the work’s end, in which language is carved down to a series of positions & connectors
- an evocation of every work entitled with that static noun phrase The X, in which X is invariably plural – these could be surnames, place names, nouns, etc.
That Coolidge doesn’t restrict himself to just one or two of these six -- there may well be others I’m not thinking of at this late hour – active levels of meaning is an aesthetic stance, having as much to do with jazz and painting (Watten is brilliant on this) as it does the history of poetry. And one could proceed through virtually every phrase, every line of this book & see at least this much going on.
To see it as chaotic, or trivial, even as a “psychedelic word salad” as one famous review of an earlier Coolidge book once characterized his style, is to fail to understand that each word here is as thoroughly determined not only with regard to its kind but also to its depths of allusion & meaning as any sentence or phrase from War and Peace. That they don’t proceed in a unilateral stance toward the signified is, at least in Coolidge’s case, what makes this possible.
But to suggest that this work is without meaning, or is “only sound,” is to envision a language so one-dimensional as to be without depth or detail. This is why I find works that only operate with a fixed relationship to a referential universe, while ignoring all the other functions of language, pallid & lacking in imagination. And why the idea that writing is “only words” is as appalling as the idea that painting is “only sight.” If all you see when you look at Clark Coolidge is “only words,” you haven’t begun to read.
¹ Michael might disagree about that word invented. He used to have his students at the California Arts and Crafts head off to the zoo to scan lion roars & perform an analysis of the meters employed.
Thursday, June 09, 2005
Least likely headline for an article that refers to Robert Creeley’s unpublished poetry:
Thomas A. Clark
For over 30 years, the literary renaissance in
As you might imagine, a genuine micropress like Longhouse doesn’t get great distribution, falling below even SPD’s radar. Happily, tho, the
the yellow of gorse
prepared by green
nourished on rock
in a salt wind
a yellow wagtail
by a waterfall
as if in response
To say that these poems are simple or slight, of course, would be to miss the point entirely. They are in fact all about precision – there is no room here at all for waste or inexact language. The result is pure pleasure – I could read Thomas A. Clark poems all day & never tire of the process.
I’ve been reading Clark, in fact, nearly as long as Longhouse has been publishing, having met the man on an early tour of the US back in 1972 or ’73. Because he’s not the flashy sort, and lives far from literary centers like NY or
If I have any complaint, it’s only that Longhouse runs these wonderful works online for just a month, rather than doing what seems obvious & ultimately more useful – gradually building up an online archive of its o.p. books. Still, that’s a quibble. In the meantime, I make sure to visit Longhouse every month. If you want to get on the mailing list for notification of each new online book, drop a note to mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday, June 08, 2005
Because she is one of our smartest, as well as one of our finest, poets, Jennifer Moxley always offers her readers much to think about. At the end of her new book, the dazzling Often Capital, she’s appended a note that reads in part:
Most of Often Capital was completed by 1991 (though a few scattered poems were composed a little later than that). Why then have I not published it until now? Why then did Imagination Verses and The Sense Record come out in its stead? There are many reasons. For one, though these poems received early support in magazines and chapbooks through the generous auspices of friends, they never secured more than a small readership, perhaps in part because of the relative obscurity of [Rosa] Luxemburg outside of leftist circles. Once Imagination Verses was published, I was hesitant to bring out Often Capital for fear it would be perceived as my second book when in fact it had preceded the first. It was Steve [Evans] who suggested, while I was putting together the manuscript for The Sense Record, that, when finished, I turn my attention to finding a permanent home for this earlier work.
What one sees here is the trace of Moxley unfolding the public life of her poetry every bit as if it were the sequencing of a narrative. Literally, she is writing it, as such. And that she wants us, her readers, to understand this is indicated quite clearly not only by alluding to the earlier chapbooks (The First Division of Labour, 1995, and Enlightenment Evidence, 1996, represented here as the two sections of Often Capital), but by literally reminding us that this should be understood as first in a sequence, regardless of the order through which we actually encounter her books.
This of course fits my own personal bias for poetry over poems, with the concomitant notion that one’s lifework is best understood as a single overarching project, within which this or that individual poem is a component, never the whole. What’s not spoken in the passage above is that Moxley might perfectly well have chosen to issue Often Capital first, had a publisher actually offered to do so at the time. But she faced the very same issues of how to get the work out as a relatively new & unknown poet just like everyone else. It was only with the deservedly great response to Imagination Verses – the Salt Publications volume is a reissue, the original Tender Buttons edition having long since sold out – that Moxley found herself in the enviable position of being able to control, at least to some degree, what gets out & where with regard to that permanent archaeological record that grows up around books. Often Capital may be her third volume, but it is also the one that, being designated here as first, establishes that there will be narrative unfolding, the lifework of J. Moxley, poet.
Contrast this with Peter O’Leary’s description the other day of Ronald Johnson’s travails constructing ARK (all caps, O’Leary notes, a typographical insistence that one suspects will prove far harder to enforce than even the quotation marks Zukofsky always placed around “A”). Not only do we find Johnson initially plotting out a version of Radi Os that would have been 2,250 pages long, as the final dome over a project initially called WOR(L)DS, that only later comes to be known as ARK, and which appears sans canopy, excised now into the four-section project we know as Radi Os. O’Leary suggests that Johnson never intended to publish the five completed (but never printed) additional sections of the excised Paradise Lost project, even as he notes just two paragraphs above that it was part of the original project that was already ongoing when Johnson dug into Milton. Even tho O’Leary writes that
One of Ron's strengths as a poet is that he knew when to stop - that he was a stringent editor of his own work
the process his email portrays is that of a poet floundering, revising, struggling not only to write and complete the project itself, but to do so in some format that will cause somebody somewhere to publish the darn thing. And, unlike Moxley, Johnson’s work was never greeted in his own lifetime with the sort of reaction that enabled him to have much control over this part of the writing process. Indeed,
This is, I think, one of the hardest aspects for a poet to control. When I first published The Age of Huts in 1986, I told pretty much anyone who would listen that Ketjak, published eight years earlier, was itself a part of the original sequence. Yet between those two books came Tjanting, the project that was written after I completed Huts. So that when I tell people now that The Alphabet is really the third stage in a four-stage project, the first two of which are The Age of Huts & Tjanting, I know that it’s nigh on impossible for many readers to visualize. Unlike Moxley, I wasn’t smart enough at the time to note in the Roof edition of Huts its relation to Ketjak, let alone the relation of both to Tjanting. I still have hopes eventually of getting this all squared away, but the process alone makes me completely sympathetic to Johnson’s own struggles, and makes me heed – indeed, almost envy – just how well Jennifer Moxley has gone about setting the ducks in a row.
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
I wish that, some 35 years ago, when I first began seriously to wonder about the nature (& differences) of Canadian poetry, something like the volume Sina Queyras promises in Open Field: 30 Contemporary Poets already existed. It would have been a godsend. Indeed, the entire idea of a comprehensive volume of current Canadian poetry targeted to its largest available export market, the
For the most part, the execution is excellent as well. Queyras has enough pages for each of her 30 choices to offer a solid sense of the poet AND the great good sense to not simply offer up typical “anthology pieces.” The Anne Carson presented here is a considerable distance from the Anne Carson a Yank might expect from the Random House PR machine, but George Bowering comes across as equally unanticipated. Can it really be that the most sardonic & cynical wit of our time was ever so passionately sincere? Of the 13 poets here whose work I feel I actually already know, only Christian Bök’s contribution – a smattering of pages from Eunoia – comes across as at all predictable. Which means that this book does more than simply serve to “fill in the map” beyond the Canadian writing I already know toward a larger (& ultimately unknowable) whole – one of the book’s great pleasures is getting a new sense of so many of the writers whose poetry I already like.
Still, I wish that Queyras had “filled in the map” a little more systematically. One consequence of seeing this unique aspect of so many writers I know is to wonder just how “representative” Queyras is with regards to the 17 others whose poetry really is being introduced to me here for the first time. When I come across somebody whose poetry is new to me – Dennis Lee might be a case in point – I don’t know whether the linguistic spelunking that characterizes these selections from Un is what I will find elsewhere or not.
A larger question – one that hangs over every anthology – has to do with who is included versus who is absent. This book includes one poet who has been dead for 17 years, the great bp Nichol, but fails to include many other important Canadians: Steve McCaffery, Karen Mac Cormack, Jeff Derksen, Gerry Shikitani, bill bissett, Meredith Quartermain, Robin Blaser, George Stanley, Stan Persky, Louis Cabris, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Stuart MacKinnon, the whole Kootenay scene, Gerry Gilbert, Mark Truscott, Victor Coleman, Brian Fawcett, Lionel Kearns, Robert Kroetsch, Phyllis Webb, Barry McKinnon, Frank Davey, Gail Scott, even Leonard Cohen. Choosing one key poet who is no longer with us forces the question as to the absence of all the others who may be gone, but who clearly continue to impact Canadian writing – Earle Birney, Roy Kiyooka, Louis Dudek – just as selecting two Canadian poets with Asian heritages – Michael Ondaatje and Lydia Kwa – raises the question again with regards to Kiyooka or Shikitani. Selecting one Canadian expat – Todd Swift – raises the question of Alan Davies or of Kevin Davies, to pick just two among several living down here in the Contiguous 48.
Queyras could have put to bed a lot of these questions simply by articulating better in her introduction what the theory of inclusion here actually was. Was it simply intuition & balance? Were sociological questions at play (as, in a volume of this kind, you would expect them to be)? If it was a question of aesthetic balance – why then allude in the title of the anthology, as Queyras concedes she has done, to the open field poetics of the Projectivist Poets of the 1950s & ‘60s, whose impact on Canadian poetry dates to a large degree back to the famous Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963? If the criteria were sociological, why not address them more directly in the introduction? Queyras instead touches on every contributor in a celebratory way, when an analytical one is really what’s called for. It’s a significant gap, especially coming as it does in a volume that cries out for a sequel that would be equal to the book we already have in hand.
A second question that this volume doesn’t quite answer, tho Molly Peacock does raise it in a superb – if too brief – foreword, is how is Canadian poetry constituted differently than writing in the
Monday, June 06, 2005
In a comment to my replies to Jonathan Mayhew’s questions the other day, Pris Campbell asked a pointed question:
After your mention of Clark Coolidge as one poet you found initially difficult to understand, I read some of his work on the Internet. This is from the beginning of The Maintains, and I hope it's okay copyright-wise to quote just the first few lines out of about a 3-4 page poem...
such like such as
of a whist
the mid eft
own of own off
partly of such tin of such
I'm curious. First: What do these lines say to you? Second: Do you honestly feel that the poetry will be read by anyone other than a small group of academic poets (and understood/enjoyed)?
It’s a fair question, one that reminds me that not everybody who comes to this blog arrives with the same reading background or predispositions.
Before I answer (or at least respond to) Pris’ question, tho, I want to note that I’ve never quite understood why Coolidge &/or Tom Orange chose that particular passage to highlight on the EPC site. The entire poem – arguably the first great book to emerge from langpo as a literary phenomenon – can be downloaded from Craig Dworkin’s website. Although it’s a fat file – & not searchable as text since the pages were scanned as photographs – I recommend it.
If you do download, the first thing you will notice is that the poem develops – it has what easily could be called a narrative thread. This involves a transition from a wide-ranging vocabulary on page one toward an increasingly non-referential one, almost as if the poem itself were going blind. The passage that Pris quotes is on page 91, just seven pages from the end, when the process is pretty close to complete. The beginning, by contrast, is as follows:
laurel ratio sharp or hard
instrumental triple to or fro
granule in award
one to whom is made
as the near wheel
of all subdue
or bear over as a knot pass
of the part plots
ending in for the most part bolts
as of wholes
come to as risen divides
paper a half surface certain salts
such as full sit to the waist
flute or the like bonus
Perhaps Pris will find this language every bit as oblique, I don’t know. But it is radically different – and that difference is the movement or sweep of this text & therefore worth thinking about.
Regardless of which passage one comes to first, it is surely the case that what one picks up immediately is not a sense of character, place, figuration or imagery, save possibly if one conjures up very localized pictures for terms such as laurel, bean, or wheel, etc. But because such imagery doesn’t sweep syntactically up into a figured landscape, the impact of such words fades rapidly.
So what does one do, confronted thus?
This is where Pris’ first question to me resonated, precisely because of the way in which it was phrased – What do these lines say to you? There is a world of presumption tucked into those words & especially into the metaphor of speech that lurks behind the verb “say.”
It amazes me, in 2005, when such lines are over 30 years old, to discover that there are serious readers of poetry – as Pris obviously is – who would not automatically do with a text what I would anticipate and expect them to do if they were confront similarly by, say, a painting of Jackson Pollock or work by John Cage (works that are themselves apt to be 50 years old at minimum) – look at what is in front of you. Deal with it on its own terms. In this case, regardless of which passage you come upon, what is in front of you would be with the word as sound, the line as prosody. The passage Pris cites sparkles off the page, read aloud with pauses for end-stops. If one doesn’t already know that Clark Coolidge is a trained jazz drummer, one would hardly be shocked to discover this, since the logic of the line is clearly percussive.
The same is true of the opening passage of The Maintains, with a notable difference. More of the words carry referential frames. If the passage from page 91 could be viewed as a verbal analogy to the “pure” painting of stroke on stroke that we might associate with something akin to Pollock’s canonical canvases, this opening passage is more complex, as if it were a collage of rapidly passing snipped of scenes, what you sometimes get with exceptionally dense collage works. Even here, of course, the sound of the words already is starting to dominate the flow of the language – hear the use of p, t, o & l in those lines, especially the combined forms – part plots, for the most part bolts – the uses even of complex rhyme, not just plots to bolts but to salts in the next stanza. Read aloud, I cannot imagine anyone who is sensitive to the sound of language not being swept up in this work.
The Maintains is in fact the first half of a two-volume project Coolidge completed in the early 1970s, the second half being Polaroid, published a year by Larry Fagin & Bill Berkson’s joint Adventures in Poetry/Big Sky label. At 100 pages to the earlier book’s 98, Polaroid begins exactly where The Maintains concludes, with a language entirely devoid of referential hooks operating utterly on prosody:
of what can it such
as which since can it
been as nor can of whence what
a single ever still of still
of when as now then
not whence ever till such can what it
as about then as till such hence it’s
of what it can since which not
even then of as now
till since then
among like both
an either whole
then of which
when thus of so what then
then such as then how
a then this
of a part whole a such even
did then as how
now a since then
that’s on then of
Where The Maintains proceeds in the continuous manner of the traditional poem, one stanza leading to the next, and with its actual lines derived – and this may not be obvious to the casual reader – entirely from dictionary definitions, Polaroid proceeds, in general (that is, there are exceptions) by treating the page as a unit, so that a page that treats the poem as spatial, or which appears in multiple short stanzas, faces another that is a long single stanza, until very gradually, it begins to readmit terms with referential hooks (two of the first, and easily the most important, turns out to be I & you), building finally toward long-lined dense stanzas that reach an almost Wagnerian conclusion, tonally.
This is hard enough to get in snippets or excerpts. Although the web site doesn’t indicate this, the excerpts of Polaroid on the EPC site represent three sets of paired pages, 38-39, 54-55, 72-73. Again, these excerpts strike me as short passages taken from the middle of a symphony – it’s impossible to get any sense of the whole or of development from them. Fortunately, Dworkin’s site also contains a downloadable PDF file of the book, albeit with the same limitations as the other volume.
My question for Pris would be: Why wouldn’t you think to begin with what you have? Which I think would imply reading aloud. In the past, I’ve read my own works – indeed pieces nearly as abstract as these – in such venues as the Maximum Security Library at Folsom Prison, and I know that, heard audibly, such works aren’t in any way “hard” or “difficult” texts. (At Folsom, I was told by the black urban prisoners that I was doing some sort of verbal jazz with my own work, which is close enough to my own experience to make sense.) And while such may be unfamiliar, I wonder about the prohibition about confronting the unfamiliar that translates a text such as Coolidge’s into such difficulty that Pris thinks to ask
Do you honestly feel that the poetry will be read by anyone other than a small group of academic poets (and understood/enjoyed)?
I’ve gone on here before about the history of poetry & it’s relationship socially to trobar clus, the work that the troubadour poets wrote for one another, that writing which demands a full engagement on the part of its readers. With the rise of fiction & the novel (let alone later forms, as disparate as cinema & pop music), trobar clus became that part of poetry that would not/could not be expropriated by other forms. It makes up most poetry today, and virtually all of any poetry that actually lasts, say, a century or more in time. However, I’m perverse enough to think that “academic” & “poet” are conflicting terms, not reinforcing ones. Historically, the center of poetry in the
The sad fate of so many poets is to get a job in a small town like State College, PA, where there are going to be only a few simpatico people on campus, and virtually no serious readers in the surrounding community, and expecting them to build a life in such environs, for the most part with only their students to talk to. To add to the problem, a number of schools then, in the name of diversity, make sure that any authors they’ve hired aesthetically conflict with one another, so as minimize any possible discourse between them. This has been the fate especially of certain aspects of the
But if another way of asking Pris’ second question is do I expect anyone other than readers of poetry to read poetry? I think my answer has far less to do with poetry than it does with education in the
Hostility to critical thinking is so deeply ingrained in certain strains of American life, it can seem laughable. It’s in this regard that one of the better texts I can think of on the question of opacity in poetry is nothing less than “How to be a Poetic Genius,” a section of Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life (“Helped into print,” as it says on the book’s cover, “by Matt Groening”). Here are two tips that will speak to life among the post avant:
10. Here is one of the coolest poetic secrets of all: You don’t even need real words. That’s right. Just make ‘em up.
11. You can write anything you want and call it a poem if you add a lot of space.
In the mean time, my response over what to do when confronted by a text like Clark Coolidge’s, or to any mode of visual poetry, performance poetry (slams included), or language-oriented conceptual work at all, is always the same: Begin with what’s in front of you, what’s really there. If there is a there there, that’s where it is.