Monday, July 23, 2007


Peter Davis must be in the process of gathering together a second volume of his anthology, Poet’s Bookshelf, collecting the lists of a new set of writers as to the ten or so books that most were or are “most ‘essential’ to you, as a poet,” since Barrett Watten, not one of the 81 contributors in the first volume, has been asked to prepare a similar list. Barry has responded with great gusto & offers a list not just of ten books, but rather a 15 or 16 works in twelve different categories that proved “most formative” for him. Even the categories chosen deserve a look-see:

Language Writing
Hybrid Texts
New York School
New Music/Jazz
Literary Theory
Cultural Theory
Great Books

For each of these categories, Watten offers a half dozen or so key works, highlighting one or two in boldface that are the ones he would ultimately list – “had these works not existed, all would be otherwise,” he writes.¹

I certainly understand the impulse to expand beyond just a blank list of individual volumes of poetry. My own selection in volume one contained 12 items², just six of which were individual volumes of verse in any usual sense. One was a volume, Spring & All, that contains both poetry & critical writing – it is in fact Watten’s selection under Modernists. Another was the Allen anthology. A third was a “box” of poems, rather than a book, Robert Grenier’s Sentences. (Watten lists it as one of his alternates under “Proto Language.”) One was a novel – Kathy Acker’s The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (Watten lists a different Acker novel as an alternate under his “Hybrid Texts” category). One was a book of theory by a poet – Charles Olson’s Proprioception – and one a book of political theory – Henri Lefebvre’s Dialectical Materialism from the old Cape/Grossman series that included such classics as Olson’s Mayan Letters and Louis Zukofsky’s “A” 22 and 23 (one of my six “regular books” of poetry).

Watten carries this contextualizing impulse much further than I did. Where I listed one volume by Olson that could be called theory (Proprioception), another by Lefebvre, two of Watten’s twelve categories are theoretical, containing a total of 14 books, none of them by poets unless you count Roman Jakobson’s flirtation with the craft during his days as a student in Russia. I have to admit that Jakobson’s Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning as well as Victor Shklovsky’s Third Factory would be on any expanded list of literary theory texts I chose as well, tho I’m surprised, I guess, not to see Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero, anything by Olson or Creeley’s A Quick Graph. In fact, my personal list might well include Watten’s own The Constructivist Moment, Bob Perelman’s anthology of talks that appeared as a double issue of Hills, Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry or Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, an instance of biography of critique that is one of the great books in its own right.

What Watten calls Cultural Theory I would be more inclined to characterize as social or even political theory. And while I like all of the books Watten lists, I don’t think any of them would be on my own personal roster – this is probably the one area where we have the least overlap (as in “none” tho I don’t actually believe that our thinking is that far apart). For one thing, I couldn’t imagine the category, at least as category, not only without Lefebvre, but without Marx, for whom I would have picked several items from among The Eighteenth Brumaire, The German Ideology, The Communist Manifesto, the first volume of Capital and possibly even the Grundrisse. I certainly would have had Illuminations by Walter Benjamin, the book that made him a cult figure in the U.S., and Sartre’s What is Literature? (necessary for Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero) , perhaps even Search for a Method or Critique of Dialectical Reason. Would I have included Louis Althusser or Antonio Gramsci? I certainly would have entertained the idea. But I also would have stretched out in some other areas not covered by Watten’s list here – such as Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations, or Claude Levi-Strauss’ magisterial memoir, Tristes Tropiques.

Another category that is interesting to think about is New Music/Jazz, for which Watten lists both recordings (Anthiel, Webern, Braxton, Cage, James Brown, Steve Reich, Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy) and books (by Clark Coolidge & Ted Pearson). Here we have some interesting overlap – I would almost certainly include Braxton’s For Alto and Steve Reich’s Drumming – Barry & I heard the West Coast premier of the work at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum together in 1974 (and it was formative enough for me that I began writing Ketjak within a fortnight). But I might include Reich’s earlier tape works as well, along with some work by the ROVA Saxophone Quartet (including the “unrecordable” performance piece The Hive), some different Lacy (Sidelines with Michael Smith on piano), and just maybe some folk and blues music, The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan and The Band, Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde on Blonde by Dylan, the recordings of Robert Johnson, Drum Hat Buddha by Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer and the jug band blues of Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachel & Hammie Nixon. There were also some live jam sessions at Pangaea on Bernal Heights in San Francisco involving members of ROVA, John Grundfest, Greg Goodman, Henry Kaiser & others that proved formative, for me at least (ensconced as I was on the bleacher seating there, writing rapidly into a notebook) tho nobody thought to have a tape running. Another obvious piece for me would be an item of ersatz world music, the Balinese oral piece called Ketjak, which was cobbled together by Colin McPhee for the sake of tourists from pre-existing Balinese sources.

Like music, film is a category where I would expect any writer to select on deeply personal grounds whatever works might be thought of as “most formative” in the creation of an aesthetic. I’m fascinated at the idea that Barry picks Wojcieck Has’s Saragossa Manuscript just because it also is one of my favorite films of all time as well, and I didn’t realize that we shared that opinion. It’s not the “most important” or “best” film ever made, but it had a powerful impact on me when it made the rounds – with some regularity – at the Cedar Alley Cinema in San Francisco. If I don’t make the same argument on behalf of the film as Watten, it’s only because I didn’t learn those particular lessons (that “all art is a construction”) there. From the perspective of my own personal history, that was Antonioni’s gift. Of the other films and/or filmmakers on his list, the ones I just might include in a similar list would be Godard’s Breathless and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The Godard films that actually had the greatest impact on me – Pierrot le fou, and Weekend – may have more to do with when I saw them than which films they were. Other films I would have to include in such a list would be Les Enfants du paradis, Juliet of the Spirits, Michael Snow’s Rameau’s Nephew, Vertigo, The Conversation, Chushingura and almost any film by Ousmane Sembene or Abigail Child, especially Pacific Far East Line. It’s worth noting that all of the women filmmakers who write and publish theory in English are named Abigail Child – her importance in the history of cinema cannot be overstated.

I’ll look more closely at Barry’s more purely literary choices next.


¹ Full disclosure: Ketjak and Tjanting are the works so chosen in boldface for language writing.

² Full disclosure (part 2): my selection included a volume of Watten’s: Plasma / Paralleles / “X”.

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