Saturday, September 07, 2002

Dear Ron Silliman,

I noticed your Blog entries this evening & wonder if you take  requests. Roger Farr & I are in the middle of a long interview with Peter Inman  about poetry& politics & we're about to ask about the exchange you had with  him at his Philly Talks discussion a couple of years ago:

Silliman: The side of it that sometimes comes back to haunt me when I  think of it in those terms is opening up a text of yours and thinking "oh,  here's another work by P. Inman who I've been reading for over a quarter of  a century." And it feels as totally natural as that waterfall because  I'm so habituated to recognizing the codes and systems and problems and  responses in it. So it's instantly pleasurable.

Inman: So, are you saying that I haven't escaped that danger of  basically doing my own signature work?

Silliman: You're a lot of fun.

Inman: Well I don't want to be fun! Is style hovering in the  background?

Silliman: I hesitate to use the word "voice".

We've been discussing problems around interpellation, collective  agency, punctuation, neologisms. I don't think you have written on Inman  (have you?) anywhere, and I'd be very pleased to hear an elaboration on this  account of Inman's poetry in terms of voice, naturalized beauty, habituation.  Please let me know.

Aaron Vidaver

Buffalo music theorist Peter Yates first coined the idea that “aesthetic consistency = voice,” which has always seemed to me exactly right. Take an extremely early Clark Coolidge poem, such as “Meditation in the White Mountains,” written in 1962, the oldest of the “uncollected” pieces available in both HTML and PDF format on the Electronic Poetry Center website (

Blue sky
few crags, the slopes
are green

whistling by
the granite stopwatch

The utterly straight-forward pastoral lyric sets up the radical disjunct created by the out-of-context term stopwatch. Further, there is an instance of identifiably Coolidgean humor in having not either line or poem end at stop but continue through watch. In a simple single word juxtaposition, one can see the germ of an oeuvre that will evolve over the next forty years.

Coolidge, Inman, Melnick, Mac Low – all of the most rigorous “anti-voice” poets in fact have totally identifiable voices in Yates’ sense of a recognizable aesthetic consistency. Perhaps tone might be a more accurate term than voice, but the differences between these terms are negligible. Just as each bell has its own characteristic resonance (as has the human vocal apparatus, that conjunction of skull, larynx, lungs, sinus cavity, etc. – I can always tell which of my sons has laughed, even when they are in distant parts of the house), each poet in his or her practice has characteristic moves as inescapable as the moon’s gravity on the tides. 

In Peter’s case, the look of language is intimately tied into sound & meaning:

Asian words calved period on
carlights in a book on some hide
the cherokee a banker’s grist
schedule texture on a waist
hours within trees of literature
the peer in my neck to a point
cow glance maned into birthr.
hutterite in some grape dust
seeing cut off from some jots

This stanza, taken from “smaller,” a poem in criss cross (Roof, 1994), demonstrates Inman’s strobe effect shifts between words and phrases well enough. At one level, all is disjunctive, but at several others connections are pulling the text tightly into a center that cannot be paraphrased.

At the level of sound, we find the “i” from “hide” setting up its appearance in the last word of each of the next two lines, only to have the “st” from “grist” lead even more strongly into “waist,” an off-rhyme that is strengthened even further by the shift from the sound of a short “I” to that of a long “a” in “waist.” These terms foreshadow “dust” in the same position of the line five lines later, which then inverts the “t” and “s” in the last word “jots.” In a similar fashion, that curious “r” at the end of “birthr” (which the mind can only hear as a truncated birthright) leads directly to the “ri” in “hutterite” at the start of the very next line. One can follow the hard “k” sound through its five occurrences in the first four lines of the stanza, see the humor of “ch” in “cherokee” as it slips back into a “k” sound in “schedule” only to hear (subliminally?) its echo hidden in the “x” of “texture.”

But just as “texture” contains “text,” meaning here is organized through iterations of nuance. The stanza carries us from “words” to “jots,” the latter figured as a noun, through “book,” “literature,” and even perhaps “hutterite.” Similarly, “calved” prefigures “cow” and “maned” and “period” projects what will be the only instance of punctuation in this text. It is only when one recognizes how much time is being referenced in this stanza – for me it was the line “hours within trees of literature” – that it becomes apparent how concise a history of writing we are being given. Or that it is being contrasted with the writer’s almost alchemical processing of phenomenological perception.

I’m not suggesting that one need do a close reading of every Inman stanza or poem, but rather that such elements are to be found throughout his poetry and trigger associations within a reader that are far from random. Inman’s voice is as clear as a bell.