Saturday, January 11, 2003

In an email response to the first of my two blogs on his work, Tom Raworth remarks “I’ve never thought I was reading fast,” commenting also that “I see all those 14 liners as dependent clauses.” Yet in ordinary speech, dependent clauses, precisely because they are usually bracketed by their “independent” brethren, often invoke a slight acceleration in speaking. The return to an independent (or, more accurately, dominant) clause is then marked by a return to the slower pacing of speech.

There is an interesting & rather constant tension between how a poet reads aloud & the text on the page itself. In Raworth’s explanation, there is at least a cause & effect relation between syntax & style. Listening to Louis Zukofsky read aloud from “A” – 12 on Joel Kuszai’s marvelous Factory School website, I note that Zukofsky follows the start of his excerpt with a relatively rigorous pause at every line break for about the first two stanzas (starting with “The best man learns of himself / To bring rest to others,” p. 135 of the UC Press edition). Yet, only a few lines later, following Zukofsky’s own pauses, I would transcribe one stanza as follows:

The time would be too short –
Throw some part of your life after birds –
Eat and drink.
What cry
Tops older fame –
Far-sighted not sure sense?
Heart with mind quick to love,
Look to the real thing unfold it within you
Turned there thru pleasure,
Bound anew.
Sweet thing,
Merry thing
Making your brow half an arch of a bridge
So that all people there facing round quicken their pace,
Fleet and lean
Desire you but to thirst what you have –

On the page, this same stanza appears more regular:

The time would be too short –
Throw some part
Of your life after birds –
Eat and drink.
What cry tops older
Fame – Far-sighted
Not sure sense? Heart
With mind quick to love,
Look to the real thing
Unfold it within you
Turned there thru pleasure,
Bound anew.
Sweet thing, merry thing
Making your brow
Half an arch of a bridge
So that all people there
Facing round
Quicken their pace,
Fleet and lean
Desire you but to
Thirst what you have –

Lineated thus, some portions of the text accelerate while others slow down. Zukofsky’s line breaks often stress his Shakespearean phrasing. Read aloud, he mostly buries these little twists mid-line, rapidly passed by. Thus the page maximizes the potential for torque in Zukofsky’s language, whereas his voice, thin & reedy as it is, minimizes it. Whether this represents a conscious approach to reading aloud or simply reflects Zukofsky relaxing into the moment of the reading itself is open to speculation, but I’m really sure that such a distinction matters.

Beginning in the 1950s, there was some real effort to equate the line with voiced phrasing – “breath” is what Olson called it, even though it is the need to breathe that stops, rather than propels, the line. The poets of that decade found the more casual & seemingly arbitrary approach of some high modernists to the question of the voiced linebreak almost startling to hear. The rather hard line approach of these younger writers would reach its apotheosis in Robert Duncan’s readings around 1970, when he literally whispered a voiced count of three between every single line as he read aloud.

Today, I think most poets treat the text much more as though it were a musical score, the typed line breaks a possible, but not necessarily fixed, index of pauses or timing. Raworth, in focusing on a syntactic type, generates a style. Or does so at least in part. The second longest poem from Clean & Well-Lit, “Emptily,” proceeds in a rather different manner. On the surface, it appears to be a long centered poem rather in the manner of Michael McClure. In fact, it contains 31 “units,” unnumbered & unseparated (& visible as such only due to the formatting, containing two such units per page, an approach that requires leaving a great deal of white space in each page’s header). Each unit consists of three stanzas, consisting of five lines, two lines & one line, in that order. Other rules are visible:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>the last line of the first stanza consists of two syllables, which may be spread out over one word or two
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>the first line of the second stanza in each unit consists only of one single-syllable word
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>the fourth line of the first stanza, the second line of the second stanza & the sole line of the third stanza will be relatively long

It’s a curious fact about the centered line that, by virtue of having its linebreak visibly marked at the start as well as the end, linebreaks are thereby minimized & any variability in line length is muted, since the “overhang” now juts out only half as far, albeit in both directions.

Combined with the plasticity of the lines themselves, this centered text can be read almost as rapidly as prose & certainly as rapidly as “Survival.” So while there are more subject-verb combinations here than in “Survival,” they do little if anything to slow the propulsion of the reader through the text. Thus it’s no accident that Colin MacCabe, quoted on the O Press site in a blurb for Tottering State, chooses terms such as “quickest” & “mercurial” to characterize Raworth’s writing. “As a reader,” MacCabe writes, “his delivery is the fastest in the business.” Factory School offers evidence in the form of a Raworth reading, although of more recent work.

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Friday, January 10, 2003

A few notes:

Salt Publishing has just published a new edition of my poem Tjanting with a forward by Barrett Watten, also new for this edition. Available in the U.S., U.K. & Australia.

Two poems from The Age of Huts have been issued by Ubu press as e-books:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Sunset Debris

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>2197

You will need Adobe Acrobat to read the e-books, but otherwise they are free. Adobe Acrobat reader is free also.

I will be reading in the Temple Writers Series, Temple University Graduate Creative Writing Program, Temple Gallery, 45 North 2nd Street on Thursday, February 27th. The reading is at 8:00 PM and is free to the public.


Thursday, January 09, 2003

Rachel Blau DuPlessis has told me, on more than one occasion, that no writer of long poems before me apparently commented in any particular detail on the process of starting or constructing such a work. But DuPlessis has herself done so, at least partly (& to some degree indirectly), in an essay entitled “Haibun: ‘Draw Your Draft,’” in H.D. and Poets After, edited by Dona Krolik Hollenberg. It’s an interesting volume overall with poets Alicia Ostriker, Robert Kelly, Sharon Doubiago, Frances Jaffer, Kathleen Fraser, Brenda Hillman, Leslie Scalapino, Nate Mackey & Carolyn Forché in addition to DuPlessis writing on their relationship to Hilda Doolittle, each in turn followed by a second essay by a scholar on the same topic – Burt Hatlen contributes the companion to DuPlessis’ essay.

A sample passage:

No plan, no design, no schemata. Just a few procedures: placing works on the big stage of the page, making each be itself intact and autonomous but connected to themselves as they emerged. No continuous narrative. No myth as explanation. Here Drafts are very different from H.D.’s long poems and quite related to Objectivist ethos and poetics. The works are influenced by Objectivist argument and propositions about reality. That the image is encountered, not found, as Oppen proposed. That the and a (said Zukofsky testily) are words worth investigating, as suggestive and as staggering in their implications as any epic or myth.

Even though DuPlessis ranges far beyond just her relationship to H.D., there is no single summation here – indeed, DuPlessis warns in an end note, that this account is far from comprehensive, citing a wide range of other sources & influences as diverse as Rae Armantrout & Clayton Eshleman.* In an unnumbered note, DuPlessis comments that “I also follow the ‘hermetic’ encoding in H.D. that involves having an H and a D in titles that consider her.” Thus, “Draft 12: Haibun.”

The conjunction of these factors – the charged, but non-exclusive discourse with modernism, the concern with the letter, brought up something very different to mind, a poem, specifically this:

There is more here than memory.


Reading Paterson on the bus, back & forth. Across the city. The 210. A man & a city.

I am not a man & this is not my city.

Williams though as a guide. His universals as particulars, ideas in things. His rhythms. Every rhythmic shaking (like a belly dancer), splashing (like the Falls) lines. Insistences. Insistence on persisting. . . .

Stuck stuck stuck the W – a poem in the new Sulfur began with a quote from Bréton that the surrealists opposed the W to the V of the visible –

The W atop Woodward’s – the big, brick, block-long (almost – next building west was Woolworth’s – another W (west a W, was a W)

These excerpts come from the very first section of George Stanley’s Vancouver, which I found at the very end of his most recent book, At Andy’s, an echo of how the first of DuPlessis’ Drafts appeared at the back of Tabula Rosa (Potes & Poets, 1987). I’ve compared Vancouver & Drafts before, but these additional layers of correspondence amaze me.

DuPlessis, in “Haibun,” speaks also of memory:

At a certain point in this exploration of the rhetorics of “drafting” I realized that I was constructing a texture of déjà vu, a set of works that mimicked the productions and losses of memory. And that the works were my own response both to the memorializing function of poetry and to my own bad memory. “An exploration of the chaos of memory (obscured, alienated, or reduced to a range of natural references) cannot be done in the ‘clarity’ of a linear narrative”** . . . . Bad memory. Bad dog. Bad bad memory. The poem replicates (but neither reconstructs nor represents) a space of memory.

Part of what amazes me in these convergences is that if I were to construct a scale of the poets who had some relation to the journals Caterpillar & Sulfur, edited by Clayton Eshleman, according to the degree of Jack Spicer’s influence perceptible in their poetry, Stanley & DuPlessis would almost be the opposite extremes. Yet here are two projects that are, if not parallel, at least so filled with resonances back & forth, that each poem works in part to illuminate the other.

* Caveat lector: my name appears in that list. 

** Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, by Edouard Glissant, p. 107.

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Wednesday, January 08, 2003

The representation of art as a process in cinema is a perpetually vexing situation. I was reminded of this as I was watching Frida the other night, an excellent biopic that makes great use of Frida Kahlo’s paintings as primary visual elements in the structure of the film, somewhat reminiscent of the way Kurosawa used Van Gogh’s paintings in Dreams. Yet at the same time, no one in the movie ever seriously discusses painting – the one point at which the film approaches the question is the one cringe-making moment in the script, Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) telling Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) that “I only paint what I see – you paint what’s in here,” tapping her on the chest.

This in turn recalled the scene in Finding Forrester in which Sean Connery reads the “wonderful” prose of his protégé at the climactic moment & the volume of the musical score rises up to literally drown out the words – this is how we know just how wonderful the prose really is.* From Barfly – think of that title as an adverb – to Naked Lunch, Hollywood has generally done a dreadful job figuring the process of writing. The sanctification of Pablo Neruda in Il Postino is not an improvement, really. Indeed, the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a process that even remotely reminds me of how a poet works is the way in which notebooks are used in some Jean-Luc Godard films from the 1960s.**

The crux of the problem, of course, is that writing is not an inherently “cinematic” activity. Usually it’s solitary and often it’s conducted in utter silence. The writer’s furrowed brow as he/she crosses out a word to insert another is about as “dramatic” as it gets, unless, say, one is involved in something unusual, such as Ginsberg dictating Wichita Vortex Sutra into a tape recorder while tooling around with Orlovsky & Co. in a VW minivan in the American heartland.

In theory, the visual arts should be easier to represent because – hey! – they’re visual. And, in fact, some of the best films about artists have been about painting, such as Basquiat – a film by a painter as well as about one – or Pollock. But, from Dr. Zhivago to The Basketball Diaries, films about poets tend to be about everything but the writing.

There are of course decent documentaries about individual poets, such as the Richard Lerner-Lewis MacAdams production of What Happened to Kerouac? as well as films by poets, from Abigail Child at one end of the spectrum to Paul Auster & Sherman Alexie at the other. At that latter end of the spectrum, at least, any poetic background, post-avant or otherwise, appears to be almost entirely coincidental.

If poetry has become largely “unrepresentable” – or perhaps only “misrepresentable” – from the perspective of at least commercial cinema, it is by no means the only occupation so afflicted. Yet the implications for a practice that has been culturally defined as “significant” & even “romantic” but which can only be indirectly figured cinematically are significant in terms of poetry’s ongoing attempts to create a stable social space for its own activity.

* This in a film with Charles Bernstein as Dr. Simon.

** Godard also pioneered the music-drowns-out-the-dialog technique in Week End, although with a far more Brechtian purpose in mind.

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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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