Tuesday, January 07, 2003

The next thing one notices about “Survival,” and about Clean & Well Lit in general, is that Raworth is not amused. The puckish wit of “Lion Lion” –

the happy hunters are coming back
eager to be captured, to have someone unravel the knot
but nobody can understand the writing
in the book they found in the lion’s lair

or of “The Conscience of a Conservative” – both collected in Tottering State – has been supplanted by a far more political tone: the first line in Clean & Well Lit is “the obsolete ammunition depot.” In that poem, “Out of the Picture,” “Survival,” “Blue Screen” & elsewhere in these works of the late ‘80s & early ‘90s, Raworth is far more apt to deploy a language that is public in its origin, the discourse of journalism & administration. This shift isn’t as dramatic, say, as the renunciation of LeRoi Jones & emergence of Amiri Baraka a generation earlier & Raworth, unlike Baraka or, say, Denise Levertov, opts for ambiguity & nuance as central to his vision, but the transformation is profound nonetheless.

From long before Jones (The Anathemata), Bunting (Chomei at Toyama) or Auden, British poetry has history of political engagement & Ed Dorn’s excursions to the U.K. in the ‘60s carried forward his own Olson-derived slant on how politics might be integrated into the poem. My own sense is that Raworth carries this sense of engagement one step further, perhaps more, in the ways in which he points the political toward the personal:

out it makes a noise
to the men and women who work
on the police computer
with a piece of piano wire
politely smiling
in front of the camera
plain clothes, nothing conspicuous
an unusual weapon
after a hot dinner
bent to fit any body
on the verge of cracking
strange things that make existence
these lost parts of the city
shrouding all of us

The key line to this stanza, as is so often the case, is exactly the one that sounds “out of place” – after a hot dinner – personalizing precisely the blandness of police work envisioned not as “cops & robbers,” but as bureaucrats before all else. The three lines that conclude the stanza immediately preceding this one pitch the tone more sharply:

an imaginary country
complete in every detail
in a perennial state of war

An almost perfect portrait of the Bush (II) administration several years avant le lettre. Thus, with this frame, the innocent piano wire of the next stanza becomes, in addition to all its other meanings, a possible instrument of torture.

Raworth’s politics are progressive but essentially unnamable. It’s interesting that Raworth, who has been known to issue political Christmas cards & whose forays into editing have also reflected a left-of-Tony Blair perspective, generally has shied away from critical writing as such save for obituaries. That’s a genre that allows him to write positively about what he believes in, but in terms that are at once both personal & settled. Poems such as “Survival” complement this by enabling Raworth to display the dystopian discourses of daily life in a context rich with ambivalence as well as horror. 

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Monday, January 06, 2003

Read Tom Raworth’s poetry aloud & you begin to understand almost instantly why, or more accurately how, he developed his reputation as – at least until Miles Champion showed up – the fastest reader on the scene. Try reading aloud the following stanzas from “Survival,” a poem in Clean & Well-Lit: Selected Poems, 1987-1995:

later she would walk
asleep on his feet
to the brink of inspiration
with lacquered nails
paused in mid-phrase
discounting – discrediting
the epic sweep of stars
devising stratagems
shrunk back in his head
until the day was filled
creating an illusion
radiating orange lightning
sucked into a vacuum
past ponds, down hills

nothing better than to re-claim
duck with its head swinging
knife – a blue pencil
only bad things that affect
the opposite still she came
a tall black vase
fluttering her arms
always displeased
moving every year
around protected by the wind
shook the plate in front
did not scream when he fell
outside down the stairs
poured all her brains

the adaptations
to differences in colour
associated with food
regarded as the simplest forms
stuck together in lumps
are irrelevant to survival
the struggle towards
countless changes
exhausted from hunger
sounded like water
beginning to burn
or an extinguished star
fading with darkness
smiling at the skull

feelings belonged to the past
his stomach churned
the breeze blew
through thick underbrush
following him around
out onto the highway
and grinned
flailing about
not to touch his cold flesh
you could smell it
from deep in the earth
watching the smoke crawl
from his straining lungs
with its icy purity

The line here represents one phrase, almost as though each were a single stroke that, together, accumulate into a large, complex canvas. In general, the lines contain between four & eight syllables – the two shorter exceptions in the fourth stanza above are the first such exceptions in the poem, which is already 16 stanzas long at the start of this quotation.

A different poet who focused on the phrase might vary the segments of language actually used line by line more than Raworth does: a quick tally of the 56 lines above shows 21 starting with verbs – only one is a variant of to be – with another ten starting with prepositions. It’s precisely this combination of line length & syntax that propels Raworth’s text forward so rapidly. A career of reading texts such as “Survival” in public would speed up anyone’s reading style.

“Survival” is the longest poem in Clean & Well Lit, which – with the exception of the sequence Eternal Sections – represents eight years of writing, post-Tottering State, Like the “14-line poems” of Eternal Sections – Raworth pointedly does not call them sonnets – “Survival’s” 14-line stanzas carry that familiar quantity about them. Raworth’s reluctance to employ the S-word makes sense, as the logic of these stanzas is anything but sonnet-esque. Rather, the propulsion of the language carries the reader ever forward, ever faster. If the syntax does contribute to the onward motion of the language, it never really resolves up to the level of a sentence – those little moments of closure are themselves deferred or displaced.

I’ve sometimes wondered if it is a function of Raworth’s phrase-focus that makes his work so eminently accessible to U.S. audiences & note, just to use these four stanzas as an index, that only the spelling of colour marks his text in any way I think might be recognizable to a Yank as British. Do the British really use phrases differently? I’m not enough of a comparative linguist to know, although I’m aware of the stereotype propagated by so many BBC dramas on U.S. PBS television stations suggesting that fully formed sentences with many dependent clauses are “British” in a way that the more telegraphic, interruptive mode of Yankee discourse is not. Of course nobody in those dramas sounds like Linton Kweski Johnson either, or even appears to have come from the north. Still, the complaint I once got from a young poet with partly British heritage that “there’s waaaay too many ‘experimental’ poets who like to think Tom Raworth is the only poet in England” reflects, among other things, the enormous respect & passion Americans do have toward his work.

Raworth’s Collected Poems is about to be issued from Carcanet in the U.K. & is already available for sale over its web site. Every single blurb for the book is from a Yank.


Sunday, January 05, 2003

To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen René Ricard read live. Although we’re the same age & have both been around the post-avant scene for three dozen years, we’ve mostly lived on opposite coasts. There was a time when I did see several of the Andy Warhol films with which Ricard was involved, but the only poet I can recall from them is an image of John Giorno sound asleep.

In addition to the geographic gap between us, we also have obviously had very different approaches to the scene. Where I’ve focused on the two or three things I do moderately well, Ricard has been something of a renaissance all to himself. In addition to his poetry and his work in film, he’s a painter, art critic and bon vivant of legendary stature. Michael Wincott, who played Ricard in the Julian Schnabel film Basquiat, refers on his website to Ricard as a “flamboyant art critic.” Ricard’s own website adds the occupation “historian” to that list.

One side effect of these varied activities is that Ricard actually hasn’t nearly as much as one might expect of a poet born in 1946. I believe I owned Ricard’s Dia Foundation book at one time, René Ricard 1979-1980, but couldn’t find it when I looked for it this morning. So when I saw his name attached to three poems at the end of Angel Hair 3 (in The Angel Hair Anthology), what I brought to them by way of background were some disparate facts –the Warhol filmography, that he was born Albert Napoleon Ricard, a middle name worth remembering – an impression of him as someone who shows up a lot in lists that have, say, Anne Waldman in them somewhere, and Wincott’s portrayal from Basquiat. Six factoids in search of an author.

Angel Hair 3 came out originally in 1967, when Ricard was just 21. He had already been around the scene at The Factory for a couple of years and been a part of the scene in Boston before that. The first of his poems is simply entitled “Oh”:

Oh yes the page is blank
At first; And now to confuse
The issue;
I take a long chic drag from my Gauloise
I’ve done it before. This could be a great poem
If I didn’t rather jerk off instead
Already I’ve begun three consecutive lines with
I; Something is meant by this
Perhaps I’ll jerk off eventually
What could be more essential
(Notice a lack of continuity)
Recurrent theme
Several stanzas and a modicum of internal rhyme
Measure Measure Measure My dear
Is not poetry without tit
les vox
Da Do you know how much poetry
How much good poetry was written in
Say the 50’s?
Lots I’ll bet
Down through the ages
We each pick our favorites

It would be easy enough to argue that this is a pretty slight poem, but it would be hard to argue the point any better than the poem does itself. In fact, reading it some 35 years after its initial publication, what struck me was how admirable “Oh” is as an act of writing. It’s very nearly a perfect example of how the “I do this/I do that” aspect of New York School writing is itself very much a process of thinking – the very point on which NYS and langpo come together as literary tendencies. &, not coincidentally – Ricard was originally associated as a poet with John Wieners – the point at which langpo & Projectivism come together as well. “Oh” is virtually all about manifesting this process & the competition between the poem & all other plausible endeavors, right up to the point when the text acknowledges the presence of “you.” At that moment, Ricard’s focus shifts to invoke a broader sense of history. All of which he accomplishes with absolutely the least amount of pretension imaginable: poetry is placed into a spectrum alongside taking a “chic drag” on a French cigarette & jerking off. Neither of which, it’s worth noting, are figured here pejoratively.

My favorite moment in the poem – actually, I have several – my first favorite moment is the acknowledgement that the instant pen is put to paper (or pixels to screen) the “unconfused” state of the poem-as-possibility is lost forever. The unwritten poem has a lot in common with virginity – things get messy in a hurry. Ricard’s sense of humor as he proceeds is exceptionally nuanced – we get the cigarette before the sex, for example. Another wonderful moment here is in the way Ricard distances himself from meaning – “Something is meant by this.” An entire critique of meaning is figured in that statement.

The poem’s first major shift occurs with “What could be more essential,” a rhetorical question that is then framed parenthetically as a flaw in the writing. From this point forward, the poem will stick to poetry as its focus, even through the second shift which occurs (no coincidence here) with the second question. The poem’s approach to its theoretical problem is so light-hearted & generous that it’s possible not to take the question of what happens to good poetry seriously, even though it’s a perfectly serious question.

You can see Ricard here as interested in the idea of artless art – a concept very close not only to the whole Warhol scene but also to conceptualism as well, which was just starting to enter the arts scene en masse.* The desire for an artless art is also quite evident in his other poems in the same issue. In this sense, Ricard is closer to the work, say, of Vito Acconci – who immediately precedes Ricard in Angel Hair – than, say, to Ron Padgett or Bill Berkson, even as the “I do this/I do that” aspect of the work makes Ricard a natural for a little magazine edited under the spell of Ted Berrigan.

Reading a journal such as Angel Hair 35 years after the fact in some ways is more meaningful than it ever could have been at the time it was originally published – we know now how all of these artists “will turn out,” who will be brilliant & who tragic. Ricard is someone who clearly chose to have an extremely diverse career, which like anything else has its advantages & drawbacks both. A poem such as “Oh” stands as a reminder that a “pretty slight poem,” written well, can still fully illuminate the whole world of poetry decades later.

* Indeed, conceptualism offers a logic through which Warhol’s cinema can be viewed as “attacking” the pop art of Warhol’s paintings.

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Saturday, January 04, 2003

Christian Bök’s String Variables is one of those initially deceptive projects in that you begin to read the two minuscule chapbooks On and Off that are gathered together (with a band of paper, not string, alas) in this micropress project, a press run of 60 copies issued jointly as openpalmseries 2.5 & 2.6 and umlaut machine nos. 6 & 7, & it is only when, starting the second volume – I read On before I did Off, although I would wager that this effect will work just as well if the little volumes are read in the opposite order – you begin to recognize the uncanny similarities. Here is the first page of On:


          no tone

semantic or epic
to graphic
I clemecy sty
nympho nemesis
pro systematic

            on icing

            i fester

            i corridor

            so famous

And here is roughly the same amount of text from the first page of Off:

          err at
          at at
          too not
<![if !supportLineBreakNewLine]>
rose manticore
man cyst yes per
antonym phoneme
rib leprosy stem

            at iconic
            in glottal
            is manifest

erratic or rid
of a mouse

Letter by letter, these two texts are all but identical, so much so that I will wager (this seems to be a betting blog) that “clemecy” in On is in fact a typo and should read “clemancy,” even though the latter is itself a misspelling. Reading the two works together – I put a couple of hours between each volume – is an almost eerie experience. There’s certainly no way that I can tell whether On was the “master” text & Off the “slave,” the one forced to fit the primary draft of the other, or the other way ‘round. Nor can I see any simple way for the imagination to derive systematic out of leprosy stem / at iconic even though, looking closely, I can see that it’s there.

Like Eunoia, Bök’s book of aggressive vowel constraints, String Variables is both a written work that is fun to read aloud & the result of an almost unimaginably rigorous formal process – he is clearly the master of post-Oulipo poetics. Technically speaking, String Variables is a misnomer for the process by which this work must have been composed. In programming, the little I understand of it, you have both variables & constants – no great theoretical problem there – either of which might be composed of numeric data or of “strings,” in which numeric data can be joined with alphabetic and other symbols. So we have strings here alright, but it is only the spaces & linebreaks that vary. (Thus the paradigm On/Off refers to the states of electrical current that are then translated into a binary system to generate all such information.)

Works like Eunoia and String Variables envision a model of language that no traditionally-educated linguist would recognize – they wouldn’t recognize Finnegans Wake either – a model in which letters, not phonemes, organize language. String Variables almost looks as if one could simply take a great block of type and divide it into clusters and – Voila! words & phrases would just “naturally” appear. The reality of course is infinitely more complex & part of Bök’s genius lies precisely in making it look so deceptively easy. While Bök’s work fits into the larger context of Toronto’s grammatologically-inflected post-avant poetry scene, the broader framework of Oulipo and its international heritage, & relates at some level to the work of Americans such as Jackson Mac Low, Bök brings a unique flavor to it all – exactly that combination of inconceivable rigor & utter simplicity. I’ve never read a substantial work of his that I didn’t wish I’d written myself.

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Friday, January 03, 2003

Lyn Hejinian has offered the readers of My Life a unique look into the compositional strategies of the project by publishing two different booklength versions. The first, published by Burning Deck in 1980, includes 37 paragraphs of 37 sentences each. The second, published by Sun & Moon in 1987, offers 45 paragraphs of 45 sentences each. Thus, in addition to adding eight new paragraphs, one for each of the intervening years of the project, Hejinian also added eight sentences to each of the existing paragraph of the first version. Hejinian also appears to have made small additions to at least one existing sentence within each paragraph. Here is the seventh paragraph of the 1987 version, known by its epigram “Like plump birds along the shore,” with material new to this version printed in boldface:

Summers were spent in a fog that rains. They were mirages, no different from those that camelback riders approach in the factual accounts of voyages in which I persistently imagined myself, and those mirages on the highway were for me both impalpable souvenirs and unmistakable evidence of my own adventures, now slightly less vicarious than before. The person too has flared ears, like an infant’s reddened with batting. I had claimed the radio nights for my own. There were more storytellers than there were stories, so that everyone in the family had a version of history and it was impossible to get close to the original, or to know “what really happened.” The pair of ancient, stunted apricot trees yield ancient, stunted apricots. What was the meaning hung from that depend. The sweet aftertaste of artichokes. The lobes of autobiography. Even a minor misadventure, a bumped fender or a newsstand without newspapers, can “ruin the entire day,” but a child cries and laughs without rift. The sky droops straight down. I lapse, hypnotized by the flux and reflux of the waves. They had ruined the Danish pastry by frosting it with whipped butter. It was simply a tunnel, a very short one. Now I remember worrying about lockjaw. The cattle were beginning to move across the field pulled by the sun, which proved them to be milk cows. There is so little public beauty. I found myself depended on a pause, a rose, something on paper. It is a way of saying, I want you, too, to have this experience, so that we are more alike, so that we are closer, bound together, sharing a point of view – so that we are “coming from the same place.” It is possible to be homesick in one’s own neighborhood. Afraid of the bears. A string of eucalyptus pods was hung by the window to discourage flies. So much of “the way things were” was the same from one day to the next, that I can speak now of how we “always” had dinner, all of us sitting at our usual places in front of the placemats of woven straw, eating the salad first, with cottage cheese, which my father always referred to as “cottage fromage,” that being one of many little jokes with which he expressed his happiness at home. Twice he broke his baby toe, stubbing it at night. As for we who “love to be astonished,” my heartbeats shook the bed. In any case, I wanted to be both the farmer and his horse when I was a child, and I tossed my head and stamped with one foot as if I were pawing the ground before a long gallop. Across the school playground, an outing, a field trip, passes in ragged order over the lines which mark the hopscotch patch. It made for a sort of family mythology. The heroes kept clean, chasing dusty rustlers, tonguing the air. They spent the afternoon building a dam across the gutter. There was too much carpeting in the house, but the windows upstairs were left open except on the very coldest or wettest of days. It was there that she met the astonishing figure of herself when young. Are we likely to find ourselves later pondering such suchness amid all the bourgeois memorabilia. Wherever I might find them, however unsuitable, I made them useful by a simple shift. The obvious analogy is with music. Did you mean gutter or guitar. Like cabbage or collage. The book was a sort of protection because it had a better plot. If any can be spared from the garden. They hoped it would rain before somebody parked beside that section of the curb. The fuchsia is a plant much like a person, happy in the out-of-doors in the same sun and breeze that is most comfortable to a person sitting nearby. We had to wash the windows in order to see them. Supper was a different meal from dinner. Small fork-stemmed boats propelled by wooden spoons wound in rubber bands cruised the trough. Losing its balance on the low horizon lay the vanishing vernal day.

I know of no other poet of my generation – & perhaps only Jennifer Moxley from among younger writers – who could write a phrase such as “vanishing vernal day.” This is just one of dozens of small, almost intimate details in this paragraph alone that render Hejinian unmistakable as a poet, & which together account for the passionate advocacy her poetry inspires.

What interests me here, first, is the absence of any formal system for the incorporation of new material into the piece. Six of the eight new sentences in this seventh section are introduced in pairs – in the book’s first paragraph, however, there was just one pair, plus another group of three clustered together, while in the eighth paragraph, all new sentences appear by themselves, singletons of new data & context. And of course, after the 37th paragraph, all additional paragraphs can contain only new writing.

In the seventh paragraph, the new material transforms the section’s beginning and end, but makes relatively modest interventions during the main body of the text. The most significant of these latter insertions is a sentence (plus two words) positioned between two sentences that were built around uses of the word “ruin.” Where in 1980, the text made a sharp turn precisely at the point of the two meanings assigned to “ruin,” in 1987 these meanings function far more softly, echoing their common moment.

Three sentences can be read as alluding to the phenomena of heat-based mirages rising up of the pavement:
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The explicit new second sentence of the paragraph, which sets up the structure for the image schema – the length & detail of this sentence are necessary if the paragraph is to intelligibly re-invoke this construct later with shorter, more brief sentences
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>A sentence one-quarter of the way through the paragraph that reverses the point-of-view, focusing instead on how the narrator is “hypnotized” by the waves of the mirage
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The final sentence in the paragraph, a moment of closure radically different from the 1980 homily
A fourth sentence is also plausible if one incorporates “The sky droops straight down” into this same image schema. Thus a point of reference that was not even hinted at in the 1980 version of the paragraph becomes the controlling image schema for its 1987 incarnation. This transformation is not insignificant. The nature of this paragraph has not been “updated,” but completely re-envisioned by the process. The frame of late ‘40s radio dramas – which then models the role given over to family stories in the 1980 version of the poem is far less of a master paradigm for the paragraph, replaced in fact by the presence of mirages. While its own juxtaposition to family narratives has not changed in the slightest, its position overall within the paragraph redefines the meaning of that juxtaposition.

There are, of course, several other things going on here, more or less at the same time. Two of the eight new sentences – “lobes of autobiography” & the question “Are we likely to find ourselves” – function as metacommentary on the process of My Life itself. The sentence concerning “small fork-stemmed boats” can be read – although I’m suspicious of this as the scale seems wrong – as related to the narrative of childhood engineering, damming the gutters, that is constructed via several sentences of the 1980 version of this paragraph.

Also of considerable interest to me are the two words now added to the final phrase of what had originally been the seventh sentence: “without rift.” I think that it is possible to interpret that sentence in just that way, so that these words add relatively little to what has already been written. But it is also possible, or at least was in 1980, to see in that image of the child the twin masks of theater – comedy & tragedy – which then allude back again to the image of “radio nights.” Here again, Hejinian’s intervention mutes or thwarts that reading – it’s a different text in 1987, with connotations distributed accordingly.

Both versions of My Life are remarkable works, although I have a personal bias toward the earlier version that is really an allegiance to the intensity of my first full reading of it on an airplane. Potentially, a project of this sort is infinite in the sense that it never need end so long as the poet herself continues to live & write. Hejinian did continue the actual process for some time after the release of the Sun & Moon edition, although no later version has been published.

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Thursday, January 02, 2003

Some works appear destined to change one’s mind.

It took me several months to get around to reading Lyn Hejinian’s My Life when it was first published by Burning Deck in 1980 because my initial reaction thumbing through the small volume was negative. It felt far too much to me like gazing into a mirror – as though Hejinian had dutifully plagiarized my own approach to the new sentence from Ketjak, perhaps with less use of found materials, using My Life’s outer structural elements of one paragraph for every year in this unusual autobiography & one sentence for every paragraph – thus 37 paragraphs each containing 37 sentences – to construct a work that looked different, but which really differed principally through an uncritical approach to the question of autobiography.

This wasn’t the first time I’d had a less-than-positive initial reaction to Hejinian’s writing only to revise my opinion completely soon thereafter. When, sometime in the early 1970s, Occurrence editor John Wilson first had Hejinian send me a packet of writing, I’d recognized instantly the strong sense of style, but had felt that it sought out lushness for its own sake – and I wrote her pretty bluntly to say so. When I got back a letter that took my grumpy misreading seriously but didn’t back off from her aesthetic commitments, I realized I was “misunderestimating” her indeed. As I was aware that I had had similar responses at first to other poets whose work later became exceptionally important to me – Clark Coolidge would be a case in point – I decided to just hold off until I got a better sense of things. This was true of both her work initially and later of My Life.

It was through the poetry of another writer about whom I might make that same “lushness for its own sake” charge that I came to reassess Hejinian’s approach to poetry generally – Ken Irby. The fourth issue of Hejinian’s chapbook series, the original Tuumba Press project, was Irby’s Archipelago, published (it says on its intensely blue cover) in November 1976. One month earlier, however, I’d run into Hejinian operating a stall at a small press fair at San Francisco’s Fort Mason, with this book front & center on her table. Irby is nothing if not a poet of the ear, perhaps the purest example of this of this obvious possibility within Projectivist poetics, and he’s something of an acquired taste. By 1976, I’d been a serious Irby aficionado for over a decade & felt at times (as I still do) as though I were a member of some secret society: The Serious Readers of Kenneth Irby.

On the spot, Hejinian & I got deeply into a wonderful conversation about Irby’s poetry & realized who each other was – I mumbled some sort of apology over my intemperate response to her material (which, as I recall, she deflected, saying that it was entirely unnecessary, a judgment more generous than true). Relatively soon after, Hejinian & her partner (now husband) Larry Ochs moved south from Willits to Berkeley & I got to know both them as two of the most probing, inventive, talented & imaginative people on the planet. Each of her first four books – A Thought is the Bride of What Thinking; A Mask of Motion; Gesualdo; & Writing is an Aid to Memory – had been so utterly different that I believed I could not, in fact, prejudge this one on a thumb-through. So when I didn’t immediately respond well to My Life, my reaction was to set aside until some time when I could look at it again with fresh eyes.

That opportunity came on a transcontinental flight back from the East Coast to San Francisco early in 1981. I got into my seat, buckled up, pulled the book from the Danish book bag that was my constant companion in those years & did not set the volume down again until I finished it, literally as the plane was making its approach into SFO. Thus I read it for the first time in a single sitting, something I never do with anything beyond a 20-page chapbook. That reading is still, to this day, the last book with which I’ve done this.

My Life was not, in fact, the book I’d expected (or dreaded) at all. Where Ketjak is very much an outward facing text, My Life operates by facing (as would any memoir) backwards. This focus transforms the project entirely. Where Ketjak uses repetition to make “the new sentence” possible, by literally breaking apart the residual narrative instincts in my work, My Life proceeds by simply assuming the new sentence as a given & using repetition thematically, both within the body of the text proper and in the epigrams that head up every paragraph. Where the structure of Ketjak is accumulative and essentially musical in its movements, My Life functions as a series of compositions all roughly equal in size – there is a logic (a narrative dimension that is only half hidden) both within & between paragraphs. The requirement of composing such structural equivalents – their formalism is reminiscent of a sonnet sequence, although, in the 1980 edition, of 37-sentence prose sonnets – places enormous compositional demands on Hejinian, which she moves through with a sweep & grace that is stunning, one jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring turn after another. Even for someone thoroughly knowledgeable as to the implications of langpo in 1981, someone who had in fact read all of Hejinian’s earlier volumes, My Life is one of those reading experiences that very thoroughly cleaves the world into before & after.

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Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Murat Nemet-Nejat suggests two complicating factors for the question of context – the reader’s contribution and the issue of what he characterizes as divided loyalties:

Dear Ron,

I just read Gary [Sullivan]'s observations on "context" and Jonathan Swift for the first time. Since Swift – particularly "A Modest Proposal" and "A Tale of the Tub" - had a strong effect on my prose writing, and my views on context relate to my reading of Swift, I would like to chip in.

Context can also be tackled from the reader's point of view, his or her historical moment, which makes him or her read, misread, reimagine, etc., that text. This is not a matter of personal taste or subjectivity, but a dynamic between two historical moments. In this way context is not seen temporally or historically, but as a fluid continuum, constantly changing.

The originating occasion of "A Modest Proposal" was the Irish famine. But as important to me was that Swift was a man of "divided loyalties," an Irishman making his fortunes in the English capital. Is it possible that the ambiguity
Gary sees in the tone (seriousness) of Swift's writing, does he really mean it, the savagery and savage logic of the piece, its madness, are due to this ambivalence of divided loyalty. Swift is attacking the English, while he is offering Irish children as sacrificial lambs.

As a writer, I am very interested in the questions of accent, of divided loyalty in our time. Am I merely misreading Swift, or out of my historical moment I am seeing a deeper context in Swift's work?
Don't the two contexts merge into a new one?

Purely as a writer, what I find striking in "A Modest Proposal" is how, following the structures, "logic" of the English enlightenment (of whom Samuel Johnson, a hater and despiser of the Irish, is the "purest" example), Swift creates a counter-text, a mad text, a parody and self parody. Is this not the essence of what experiment in poetry is? Is that not what, for example, the Bernstein's poem which you mention does?

My best. Happy new year.   

Murat Nemet-Nejat


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