Monday, October 16, 2006


I would say that I’m in Dutch again for something I’ve written but, the way things have been going lately, I’d start getting all kinds of complaining email from readers in the Netherlands. The offending statement is the following, from my note on Gael Turnbull October 4th:

There are gems like these everywhere throughout this book. Small, brilliantly conceived, perfectly executed poems, with an unmistakable ear. This last feature is especially worth thinking about, given just how different accents are in the U.K. compared with the United States. The number of, to use Charles Bernstein’s apt phrase, island poets with an ear that makes sense to a Yank auditory canal is exceptionally small: perhaps, in the past century, just four – Bunting, Turnbull, Raworth, Thomas A. Clark. This is not to fault others – from J. H. Prynne to David Jones to Douglas Oliver or Allen Fisher – whose ears may well make perfect sense on their own terms, but who don’t, how shall I say this, travel well on at least that one level. But I do think it’s an enormous advantage in the pure accessibility of the work.

The offended this time are British poets. I’ve received angry emails as well as snide ones, and been treated to a general thrashing on the UK Poetics listserv. Yet as I thought, foolishly I suppose, I had made perfectly clear, this wasn’t a comment at all on the relative quality of the work of any of the poets named above, but rather on how dialect can aid or hinder reader reception elsewhere. Or perhaps, and I think this may well be part of the question, on the relationship of dialect to representation thereof upon the page. This is not an easy issue to discuss, simply because what is “transparently clear” to one reader may well be opaque, or at the least translucent, to another. I probably should have covered myself better by writing “this Yank auditory canal.” But I didn’t.

The best example I know of this issue is the writing of William Carlos Williams. Once, some 36 or so years ago, David Melnick & I were talking with Josephine Miles on the UC Berkeley campus, where she had been teaching for many decades, becoming the first woman to receive tenure in the English Department there in 1947. We were discussing Williams, who at that moment was the iconic figure of plain speech in verse form. Not only was Williams the key poet behind the Projectivist or Black Mountain writers of the New American poetries of the 1950s, he served a very similar role for the Objectivists, who at that moment where just then coming back into print & prominence after a hiatus of nearly 30 years. The New York School plainly loved the late doctor, especially Frank O’Hara, & as for the Beats, Allen Ginsberg had virtually been his neighbor as a kid in New Jersey. He’d gotten Williams to endorse Howl really before any other established literary figure had, and Ginsberg himself had appeared as a character in Williams’ opus, Paterson. Further, with the then-current release of the Frontier Press edition of Spring & All, Williams seemed to be the most avant-garde thinker then going in the area of poetry. And, over on the School of Quietude side of the playground, one whole new tendency, just then coming to the fore, of poets who rejected the formally closed Anglophilia of the Boston Brahmin poets, likewise took Williams as an avatar for what they were then calling “open,” “naked,” or (my favorite) “leaping” poetry. In short, just seven years after his death, there was nobody in American poetry (save perhaps them Brahmins) who didn’t profess love for the doctor from Rutherford, NJ.

Thus, to pick from The Wedge, the 1944 book of Williams that most directly influenced the young New American poets who were just then coming of age as readers, something like “The Yellow Chimney” was the utter apotheosis of speech itself deployed in verse:

There is a plume
of fleshpale
smoke upon the blue

sky. The silver
rings that
strap the yellow

brick stack at
wide intervals shine
in this amber

light – not
of the sun not of
the pale sun but

his born brother
declining season

And a poem such as “The Poem,” also from The Wedge, suggested that Williams himself knew this:

It’s all in
the sound. A song.
Seldom a song. It should

be a song – made of
particulars, wasps,
a gentian – something
immediate, open

scissors, a lady’s
eyes – waking
centrifugal, centripetal

So it surprised me at least – I can’t speak for Melnick here – to hear Josephine Miles, age-wise closer to the Objectivists than to the New Americans & active in the world of poetry since the early 1930s, tell us that “we couldn’t hear him. When we started to read Williams, not just me but everybody back then, we didn’t know how to read those poems. They appeared shapeless and alien.” But to someone 15 years younger than Miles, Robert Creeley, it seemed immediately & instinctively obvious how these poems should be read, how they should be sounded aloud. And, indeed, Creeley’s own early style extends almost directly from the poems of The Wedge. Even now, I myself tend to follow Creeley’s own model for reading aloud when looking at these poems of Williams, pausing audibly at the end of each line.

Now this was at a moment relatively late in the consolidation of the New American poetry (Olson had just died, Spicer & O’Hara had been dead five and four years respectively, Blackburn & Lew Welch were soon to follow, Grenier would write “I HATE SPEECH” in the first issue of This this same year). Among other things, among the Projectivists there were disagreements as to the settled nature of the role of the linebreak as an indication of a pause, giving each poem its distinct syncopation. That same season, Denise Levertov had invited David Bromige & I to come into one of her creative writing classes at Berkeley to show the students there what “young poets” were up to, only to get into a huge argument with her when she insisted that a comma was “worth two linebreaks” when it came to a pause, whereas David & I both felt that the visual drama of line’s end & the turn back to the left margin dictated exactly the opposite conclusion – a comma inferred a small pause, a linebreak something bigger. This same year also Robert Duncan gave a reading in Berkeley over two nights of all of the sections of Passages then written, audibly counting to three at the end of each line in a whisper before reading the next.

Yet later I would hear, on more than one occasion, Creeley himself say that he was “stunned” to discover that Williams read his own poems with no particular audible annotation of linebreaks. Tape recordings of Louis Zukofsky, just seven years older than Miles, reveal him pausing at the end of every second line, treating one linebreak as a kind of a silent caesura, the next as a more audible stop.

So while we youngsters were then rebelling against some fixed & prescriptive conception of the relationship between writing & speech, our elders were sending us some very mixed messages as to what that prescription was supposed to be. No wonder Grenier concluded that the key to moving forward lay in overturning the prior paradigm.

I note that of the four U.K. poets whom I listed, three are from the north, with only Raworth having been raised in London, although what that means exactly I couldn’t tell you. Scottish English in particular fed into America’s Southern dialect, which then spread further after the Civil War wrecked the southern economy. But when I gauge my own version of American dialect, one dominant mode is “General American English” (35 percent of my responses), especially when accompanied by its closest cousin, “Upper Midwestern” (another 10 percent). Only 15 percent of my answers correspond to “Dixie,” less than half of the percentage (again 35) recognizable as “New England.” While none of my ancestors ever lived in New England, both of my maternal grandparents, who for the most part raised me, were first generation Americans, their immigrant parents having come to the North Oakland/Berkeley border more or less directly from London. Although neither showed a trace of accent that I ever detected growing up – does any parent? – they salted my vocabulary with enough of the London lexicon with which they had grown up, which is to say that I get that aspect of my language from the same city from which New England also drew many of its regional terms.

This leads me to think that it’s not so much the dialects of Bunting, Raworth, Clark or Turnbull that generate this response from me as it is the ways in which they tend to represent their language on the page. Specifically, the impulse of each is toward a shorter line. It may be as simple as that – when I look at something like Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems, I note that there some poems of his I hear much better than I do others. Almost without exception, the ones that make the most sense to my ear are those with shorter lines. But when he calls something with a longer line – maybe ten words per line – like “The Journey,” a prose poem, it makes a peculiar sense because I can’t hear it any other way. Similarly, it’s the short lines, especially in American Scenes, I can hear in Charles Tomlinson’s poetry, but when he shifts into a longer line it feels suddenly slack & unfocused. There are instances in his Selected Poems on which the two modes appear literally on facing pages (cf. “The Moment” beginning on page 144, versus “Writing on Sand,” starting on the next page). My immediate reaction is almost disbelief – how can someone who can attain the crystalline measure of

hints there
of a refusal
to bare oneself
to the elemental,
a pacing parallel
to the incoming onrush, a
careful circuiting
of the rock pools:
the desire to stay
dry to be read
in the wet dust

write on the facing page (and seemingly of the same experience) something as flaccid as

Watching two surfers walk toward the tide,
Floating their boards beside them as the shore
Drops slowly off, and first the knee, then waist
Goes down into the elemental grasp,
I look to them to choose it, as the one
Wave gathers itself from thousands and comes on:
And they are ready for it facing round
Like birds that turn to levitate in the wind.

It’s not that Tomlinson has changed his perspective – the same overblown claim of “the elemental” turns up in both poems – but when he needs to insert the pointless And at the start of the next-to-last line of the bottom passage, that poem’s puffiness passes beyond the point of no return. It’s not just that I could read “Writing on Sand” aloud & derive considerable pleasure from the experience & that I couldn’t read “The Moment” aloud at all (I’d dissolve into giggles), but rather I can’t hear its measure. It feels like so many pots & pans banging about in the kitchen.

Now I can make one of two assumptions from this experience. One would be that Tomlinson is an uneven poet, wildly so. But the other is that there are elements of language that cause him (and by inference whatever the ideal audience for that poem might be) to experience “The Moment” quite differently than I do. My guess is that at least half of the answer to this problem lies in that second assumption. And that in turn means – or at least I think it means – not that British poets who use shorter lines “are better,” but rather that there is some aural element to the language there, with all its many dialects, that I can’t get unless it’s delivered to me in relatively short lines.

If this is true for poets for whom the model of literary discourse is the spoken, it certainly should be true also for authors who are willing, a la Allen Fisher & J.H. Prynne, to expand their sampling of vocabularies & to go beyond speech itself as a template for language in their work. And that is the point I was trying to make when I got myself in trouble.

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