Saturday, May 03, 2003
Halvard Johnson no longer lives
& teaches in
I’ve known Johnson primarily as the author of four books that came out over a decade – more or less the 1970s – from New Rivers Press. That was a decade of high militancy amid poetry tendencies – the period when the Poetry Project Newsletter routinely removed certain language poets from the lists of contributors to little magazines – and Johnson’s poetry, which I would have characterized then as a softer version of the New American poetics of the two previous decades, was part of the landscape, but never aligned with any particular visible formation. That was, I now suspect, a reasonably accurate assessment. He was – still is – a complete independent as a poet.
anyone who reads small presses knows, Johnson has continued to write &
publish in journals since the 1970s. Books, however, appear to have been harder
to come by. Which is why the inclusion of his Rapsodie espagnole on Jukka-Pekka Kervinen’s xPress(ed) website from
xPress(ed) is a site that publishes booklength works of “experimental” – its term – poetry in PDF files. It published 13 books last fall, and another ten this spring. Authors include Catherine Daly, Jesse Glass, Peter Ganick, Lewis Lacook, mIEKAL aND, Kari Edwards, Eileen “Peeps” Tabios, Sheila E. (for Everywhere) Murphy, Michael Basinski, Nico Vassilakis, Dan Raphael, Joel Chace & more.
Rapsodie espagnole is, by Johnson’s own description, “a found poem,” a work in 34 sections whose sentences are taken entirely from the English examples in an advanced Spanish language primer. If there are any rules beyond the constraints around Johnson’s source language, I can’t discern them. Here is section 7:
If I were you, I should decline the offer. She wanted to go shopping,
but he preferred to read the paper. Where do you spend the summer?
Who is it? It is they. The fact is that there is not enough for the two of you.
Before sitting down, I wiped the chair. On thinking it over, we have decided
he is not suitable. Put them there, don’t give them to me. How brown
you are getting! I am going to tell you the truth. It was as if the monkey
were human. Whenever I see him I give him a small coin. Where
is the chocolate? We have eaten it. There are Peter and Philip,
let’s go and invite them. We offered it to her. He entertains his friends
a great deal. He handed the list to the inspector. They took out
the necklaces and beads and showed them to the natives.
They showed them to them. She was so scared that her hair
stood on end. The nurse put a thermometer in his mouth and took
his temperature. He promised his wife he would buy her a new washing
machine. He promised it to her. In order to pay for it he borrowed
the money from his bank manager. It is impossible for us to accept
this ultimatum. They were shot at dawn. Why go on talking about it?
He thinks he’s handsome, but he isn’t. He is so kind-hearted! I told you so.
You cannot rely on him, believe me! We think it opportune to sell
all our shares in that company. I am surprised there are foreign tourists here.
They are everywhere. He thought he was so clever!
New Sentence Я Us! Johnson plays the pronouns into a comic series of exchanges, some light-hearted, others threatening. Individual sentences tend to be direct, but at times are just far enough “off” from idiomatic norms to give the reader that “dictated from Mars” feeling: How brown you are getting!
I have to
admit I have always had an ambivalent relationship toward constructed texts of
this sort, a feeling heightened now that the Ubu website seems to have decided
that my own 2197 “anticipates,
with its stock of phrases morphing and reappearing in different acrobatic poses
throughout its pages, the preoccupation with dataflows,
rhizomes and digital recurrence that has characterized much literature in the
age of the internet.”** But 2197 was
very much written the old-fashioned way, by looking at the materials at hand
& figuring out in my head what should go next – its only quirk being that
“the materials at hand” were restricted to one source sentence for syntax, one
for vocabulary, determined mathematically from a core set of 169 sentences. My
guess is that Johnson has proceeded through K.L.J. Mason’s Advanced Spanish Course in very much the same fashion, utilizing
the “Practice Sentences for Translation into Spanish” as source material, but
then just writing. I don’t think it’s possible – in the above section or
elsewhere throughout these 34 single-stanza pieces of variable length – to have
produced what we find here through a system. Johnson’s wit is too sharp, his
timing too exact. It passes a variant of the Turing test for
poetry that I call the Ginger Rogers
example, some early systematic poems by Jackson Mac Low, such
as those found in Stanzas
for Iris Lezak, a 396-page work written by
Mac Low in 1960 & published by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press 12 years
later***. Mac Low’s afterword on the method used in composing & performing Stanzas is over 20 pages long, but what
is really noteworthy from the perspective of Halvard Johnson’s text some 43
years hence is how very awkward Mac Low’s pieces are – they don’t try to hide
it & even revel in it to some degree. At the time it was something, however
ungainly, nobody had every achieved before in writing. In contrast,
ambivalence, of course, is that same old one between composition as an
individual process – that is, as a process channeled through (& thus
controlled by) an individual – and the possibilities of, not automatic writing,
but automated writing. There was a
period a few years back when I wondered if Brian Kim Stefans would soon be able
to generate a computerized booklength text every single afternoon, while still
holding down whatever it is he does for a job. Since then I’ve gotten to know a
little the large oeuvre of
want to turn into a slightly pomo variation on Hilton
Kramer’s caricature of criticism, shaking a raised finger & kvetching that
young people these days need to sweat out every individual pixel. Yet I do
value labor & intelligence absolutely – Johnson’s approach to his materials
demonstrates plenty of both. It’s not, for example, a test case for the limits
of procedure, but rather a deft & exceptionally clever application of the
possibilities raised by this language. In this sense, Rapsodie is a reasonably close kin to
One significant difference between Rapsodie & Dolch or Twenties is that its fundamental kernel is the sentence, whereas the other two works come into focus at the word. Writing with the sentence as your unit is an extremely tricky & difficult process – not at all like putting word after word. Length, structure, sound, potential for referentiality all come into play in ways that are sometimes surprising. Given my own writing process – composing individual sentences & deploying them in works often months or even years later – this for me is the most fascinating part of Johnson’s process. I can speak from experience when I say that he really gets it & hits the right spots the way, say, a great jazz musician would all the way throughout this work.
* Trying to
yoke an aesthetic tendency around
** I will admit that I never thought of 2197 in such terms before reading this blurb.
*** Really useful project for Duration or Ubu or even xPress(ed): get the rights to digitize the entire Something Else catalog.
Friday, May 02, 2003
One poem from H.D.’s 1924 volume, Heliodora, seems to have stuck in my imagination. In the week or so since I first read it in my long march through Ms. Doolittle’s oeuvre, I’ve come back to it more than once. There is something about its tone that is uniquely – and deliberately – unattractive:
the still eyes in the white face,
the lustre as of olives
where she stands,
and the white hands.
the wan face when she smiles,
hating it deeper still
when it grows wan and white,
remembering past enchantments
and past ills.
God’s daughter, born of love,
the beauty of cool feet
and slenderest knees,
could love indeed the maid,
if only she were laid,
white ash amid funereal cypresses.
There is seething fury here that I have seen only in the poetry of Jack Spicer (and in his work only in the love poems of Language & Book of Magazine Verse), directed not at Helen, but toward Greece, a mass noun.
I’ve noted before that H.D. is perhaps the major modernist whose work I know least well, and my approach since I began reading Duncan’s H.D. Book (which turns out to be only incidentally and peripherally about H.D.) has been to read her words first, letting the critical materials come later. But it is interesting to note that this poem was not one I came across when doing that superficial scan of modernism one gets in college, even at Cal, where the representative texts had invariably been the shorter imagist texts, such as “Oread.” Just by the number of commentaries posted for this one poem on Cary Nelson’s Modern American Poetry website, I can tell that the social history of the past 33 or so years has substantially revised upward the stock of “Helen.”
I’m not concerned – and not likely to become concerned, either – as to whether or not the figure of Helen here could be said to represent H.D.’s own mother or, more likely, her partner Bryher.* What concerns me instead is the tone, the how & why of it. I can’t think of any American poem that, by 1924, the year Heliodora was published in an edition of 520 copies, so thoroughly vilified a group of people. The closest might be some of Pound’s early work, which is rancorous enough, but lacks the absoluteness of “Helen.”
The absoluteness lies –
& this is a rhetorical stroke of genius – not in what the speaker says but
rather in the absoluteness of hatred ascribed to
This degree of emotion in a poem is rare precisely because it borders on a taboo: the work of art as an act of violence. High modernism, of course, had its advocates of death & destruction, viz. Italian futurism, but that was an aestheticized mayhem, like explosions in slomo. “Helen” is personal. The anger is palpable but never directly expressed** – the combination renders it much more powerful. The contained fury of the text, accentuated by the very formality of its rhymes, feels like an energy that needs to go somewhere. Far from being a self-consuming artifact, “Helen” functions by acknowledging the tacit agreement of any author toward their reader – “do no harm” – and suggesting without saying so that this social contract could be put at risk.
“Classicism” serves a variety of functions for H.D. In some works, retelling old stories enables her to achieve a space that the Russian formalists would have characterized as “unmotivated” or plotless. Often, it provides a kind of buffer or privacy for Doolittle, enabling her to speak intimately & directly without having to address the issues implicit in being identified with the speaker – that’s part of its function here. Often too classical facades disguise the depth of her challenges to the received terrain of language. “Helen” is an immediate contemporary of Spring & All. In some ways, this short poem is just as extreme as any element of Williams’ work.
* Although, if the latter, it would be interesting to speculate on how much of the resentment this piece acknowledges toward “Helen” may have been based not on sexual orientation so much as on class. Great wealth is its own special curse.
** Consider, for the sake of contrast, Dylan’s antiwar anthem, Masters of War, no less eloquent in some ways, but far less subtle – and I’ll stand over your grave until I’m sure that you’re dead.
Thursday, May 01, 2003
Another work in Raddle Moon 20 worth thinking more about
is Robert Glück’s “The Visit,” a series of 12 prose meditations executed in –
as well as on – a scrapbook purchased for “a dollar at an antique sale.” Each
section accompanies a postcard of a scene in
Sebald, who was killed in an
automobile accident in December 2001, was a German émigré to the
Against that as a
background, these twelve pieces by Glück are indeed a revelation. Both texts
utilize images – Glück the twelve postcards against which (or perhaps around
which) this work was conceived & executed, Sebald a series of illustrations
– photographs, paintings, newspaper articles – some of which are discussed in
some detail in the text. Glück’s use of imagery is consistently more
challenging, as in the fourth section, above a postcard photograph of the
resort town at
This photo documents our absence, but daydream, the amateur, recovers possibility:
Today a child approached me on the dock. She was gap toothed and she held both hands out. I couldn’t tell if she was giving or asking. I split into red blue green sloppy registration. Sloppy registration and a lazy printer. This is quite a “modern” setting – even the distilled quaintness and low-tide flavors are modern if that means self-conscious. It smiled for the camera so often it couldn’t remember a normal expression, if normal means “not modern.”
The breeze was salty, the scene itself typical of a rewrite. She wore a tiny indigo silk suit, that is, pants and jacket. I thought she probably came from a class above mine or at least a better department store. Beneath her lids Mr. Rabbit lifts his paw to strike. The amazed Fox raises his eyes and says, “—
Stepchild, if she said a word it would be rampion. She was trying to assert a connection between us – I wondered if she was my daughter. She had the lean fingers and intricate ears some newborns have.
Rampion, a word one seldom sees apart from a menu. The piece works, in contrast
with Sebald’s, precisely because there is no wastage. But it also works in
contrast, say, to
Glück even plays around with the question of representation a la Tysh in that second paragraph, but rather than turning back toward a set piece concerning referentiality, the question of the modernity in the camera’s elicited smile becomes the point of momentary focus.
In one way, “The Visit” replicates an experience that I’ve had with Glück’s work on several occasions – proceeding with a quietness that is completely disarming, it nonetheless surprises and expands my sense of what is possible. The other works in Raddle Moon offer an instructive contrast: all on the surface appear to be more transgressive, but I’m not convinced that any of them really are. Glück appears to have little or no interest in the flash or camp one associates, for example, with the plays of Kevin Killian or the sex tales of Dodie Bellamy. Yet the questions of identity surrounding the figure of the child in the piece above are no less charged, no more simple. It’s precisely Glück’s ability to demonstrate the range & depths available to a quieter register that first called into mind Sebald’s writing. Yet, unlike Rings of Saturn, there is nothing listless about Glück’s prose. If anything, it’s as exciting anything now being written.
* Some of the so-called New Formalists have adopted the appellation New Narrative as well. Neither term is accurate, although accuracy seems never to be much a value for those pre-romantics.
Wednesday, April 30, 2003
If you never received a letter from the late Larry Eigner, you should go out and buy Raddle Moon 20 at once. An issue devoted to the problematics of image & text, editor Susan Clark has chosen to print an exceptionally typical letter of Larry’s, along with several other interesting works by the likes of Robert Glück, Norma Cole, Kirsten Forkert, Javant Biarujia and Gary Hill. As a whole, the issue is a testament about to do a journal intelligently: focus on just enough writers to provide for range while confining none of them. As has been true for every issue I’ve seen, it’s a gold mine of literary treasures.
Eigner’s letter was sent in the spring of 1993 in response to Raddle Moon 10. The letter itself is dated, literally “Jan 26 March 56 93” – off to the right a second set of numbers offers even less elucidation. It might be read as:
1 7;2;1 . 1
Might because the first semicolon appears directly above a “2” so that perhaps it should have read
1 722:1 . 1
Or some other variation – Eigner’s letters are full of such marks, sometimes scratched out in pencil (as at least one phrase in this letter appears to have been), sometimes not.
The part of the letter might be read as a poem, dedicated to Robert Grenier and Norman Fischer, both friends of Eigner. The text, as I read it, might be:
O u i G e e ! . . . !
Pea wee wee
chai tea- hlea
wee bee eye sea
two or more peas can’t ever be
just one and the same
Still hopefully a few see
enough of singularity
at times to drop such perplexity
Might be, because there appear to be at least 20 places in 9 lines in which textual interpretation & discretion would come into play, as they needed to for every editor that Eigner ever had. Just one instance, that last word, literally is typed “prtp:exity” with an additional “r” impinging from below on that first “t.”
Around this text, palimpsest fashion, are a series of notes:
this of crs doesn
get far at all
soon peters out
In Bob’s multi-
colored crayon script,
some 2 or 3 lttrs
looked like othrs,
implied them, and he
prolonged, in high-
pithed voice squaled
out, quite a few
words, “we” for in-
The above from seeing/hearing Grenier read/show
slides from his notebook, mss \ poems, akin to his calligraphic
words, poems, Jan 24, and then reading ed
Fischer’s 1-line poem in RADDLE MOON #10
Even with all the typos left in (“othrs” for “others,” “pithed” for “pitched”), the text I’m presenting here is greatly cleaned up.
There is a second poem on the page, with a similar set of notes, plus Eigner’s own signature of sorts penciled in to one of the open spaces on the page. I’m not going to quote it here, because you really need to see the issue, not just this report of it.
I feel an enormous pang reading all of this, some of it simply a continuing sense of loss at Larry’s death six years ago, but much of it directed more at myself & the community of readers of which I’m a part – I often think we have gone only a very little way toward understanding all that might be gotten from the work of somebody like Eigner, and that as a result we have only the most superficial understanding not only of what we have lost, but of all that we had among us for so many decades.
Larry’s physical problems were immense – he had the ability to use a few fingers on one hand, the ability to grasp with the other. His speech, even after surgery and years of practice in a community that wanted to communicate, was at best difficult-to-impossible. But Eigner was brilliant & used his challenges to consider precisely what the implications for language might be of his situation. His poetry & critical writing represents one of the most intense explorations of this terrain we have ever had, or likely ever will have. Stein, Olson, Pound – anyone you want to think of – by comparison was a lazy & casual writer.
So many of
Eigner’s letters entail just these critical palimpsests around every stanza,
almost every line. Before he
In “O u i G e e” the word “leaf” appears hidden, barely recognizable in the second line. To spell it out of course would dampen the use of internal rhyme that Eigner is playing out in this lines. To make it appear visually while disappearing aurally is a complex little moment. The only other poet I can think of who is even capable of such an effect might be Hannah Weiner, also a brilliant writer confined within some difficult personal constraints.
A project is underway, involving several poets, including Bob Grenier, Lyn Hejinian, Curtis Faville & others, to prepare a Larry Eigner Collected Poems. As the letter in Raddle Moon suggests, this is not going to be an easy project & every poem – there are literally thousands – is going to require the sort of editorial decisions alluded to here. Here’s hoping that they don’t “solve” all the blind spots but, like “hlea” in the second line here, leave enough in to suggest precisely the cognitive grind forever at work in the language of these great works.
Tuesday, April 29, 2003
An email from Dale Smith:
Thanks for addressing my notebook / poem question on your blog today. You open up a lot for consideration. Ken Irby wrote to me about it, also going back to the 19th c for some origins. He mentioned Thoreau specifically, and Whitman's "Specimen Days" as exemplary strategies for notebook narratives in American Lit. It is interesting though how the New Americans really pick up on the format. Olson, as you point out, freed a lot of ground (after Pound, WCW, HD et al), and the Asian influence from Whalen, Snyder and Kyger (she referred me once enthusiastically to Lady Murasaki's Pillow Book) really opens some day book possibilities in poetry.
What's most interesting to me is how new formations of narrative are derived from this process of record and observation. An extension of narrative away from specific important events, memory-based moments-of-significance or any other subject-laden organization is part of the journal's day-to-day use. It instead deepens observations and penetrations of diverse fields that are in fluctuation, barely visible except as they catch the senses at a particular moment. Bob Grenier in Narrative*, his Curriculum of the Soul contribution, looks at the etymology of the word Narrative, relating it to Gnosis – Knowledge – from the root Narr. Gnosis, relations through language and perceptive recordings of daily phenomena become the organizing principle of narrative for the New Americans. Process is valued over stasis, subjective interaction over objective evaluation. Story by extension becomes an ongoing act of attention at the limits of language and things, nudged up next to the Unknown, in the best sense. At its worst, I suppose, you might get rudimentary daily traffic. But that seems to be the Art of this journaling process in poetry, to fine tune the attentions to what matters at the limits, not within the confines of the known. Domestic routine, in a sense, becomes Romance or Adventure, in that all relations are refigured each day in the process of finding words in relation to the world.
You might see a more social context for the uses of journals in this kind of writing. In a way I can see its transformative potential as a kind of narrative that runs against the meta-narratives of State. But I'm running aground now in speculation-ville. Thanks for grounding an answer to my question in specific social and historical contexts.
It's interesting you bring up Coolidge, though I see why you do. I'll look at those books you mention by him. Where do you think this kind of narrative has gone now? How has it transformed into contemporary writing, if at all?
Anyway, thanks again for your insightful comments. This helps me out with some things I've been working on in relation to this topic.
Hope all's well.
· In fact, Grenier’s volume in the Curriculum of the Soul series is called Attention – RS
Monday, April 28, 2003
You tip the question back to a period
of anesthesia when the emblematic horn
returns overflowing with numerals.
Another, from the same poem:
A simplest sheet of blue
rain whose nature consists in blocking other referents
will spread and enter into production of meaning:
a solitary dark figure at work on his desire
Only in a writing this abstract might one today actually deploy a phrase such as “solitary dark figure” & not have it clank around in the poem as a cliché. Here, by virtue of style itself, that aspect of this ancient trope becomes an element of the writing, like a neo-noir film carefully deploying smoke & shadow.
Passages like this often strike me as revealing the scope of a phrase-centric poetics strategy, a mode of contemporary writing to which I myself am much attracted. A sentence such as the first one above builds connotative schema through cognitive blending to arrive at a result that is suggestive without being either reductive or vague. The second sentence – there are two others in between this pair – performs the same literary task but frames it now more clearly within a schema of linguistics & semiotics. The second sentence leads directly to a long & luxurious final one:
To tumble, these polygons, defer
closure, beneath them, a smooth multiplication
table extends into floor and scrambles
this particular narrative we hastily assemble
to be done with watching, eyes closed
to the slow mechanisms that fool us into pressing together
the nervous slant of packaged goods, xeroxed weather.
On the one hand, I take absolute pleasure in a sentence such as this, simply to follow the shuttle of its back-&-forth movement. I note also how both polygons & multiplication / table tie back to the earlier numerals.
On the other, I sense (&
struggle with, or perhaps against) a containment or limit here. The constraint
lies precisely in the conjunction between the two domains of language &
photography, with all of the multiple angles on reference & referentiality
they imply. Every one of the five poems in “Disappearing Series,” the first
Who in 2003 has not yet seen a poem that takes on these ideas? My problem is not in Tysh’s execution – she is as smart a poet as exists today, with a wicked sense of humor – the title of this book is a good example. But do we need another series of poems that take two broad tropes, language invariably being one of them, revealing to us all the ways in which they intersect? I’m not persuaded.
The result is that, to my eye, these poems clash with Tysh’s own innovative impulses in writing. That is to say that they seem to me curiously closed set pieces, impeccably written, by a poet who wants to break out into much bolder terrain.
But this is just the opening sequence of Tysh’s new book – I wouldn’t suggest necessarily that what’s true for “Disappearing Series” applies to Continuity Girl as a whole. Once I’ve read more of the book, I’ll report back & let you know.
Ж Ж Ж
Sometime around today, Eastern Daylight time, this blog will greet its 30,000th visitor since last September 1st. Thank you all very much.
Sunday, April 27, 2003
Folks in DC need to pay heed to an event tonight.
Whale Cloth Press announces the publication on its web site of :
two selections by
The Dolch Stanzas, originally published in 1976 by This
and four works from Windows,
originally published in 1985 by the Press.
Robinson will be reading on the East Coast over the next ten days:
· with Mark Wallace at Bridge Street Books in
, , tonight, April 27; Washington
Bob Perelmanat the University of Maine, , Thursday, May 1
· with Miles Champion & Ted Pearson at The Drawing Center, NY, , Tuesday, May 6
Robinson also has a new book out: 9:45 – it’s an absolute delight!
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