Saturday, August 30, 2003

My second example of what I might characterize as a noble shipwreck in poetry is Chris Tysh’s homophonic translations from the French, “Acoustic Room,” the brief third section of her book, Continuity Girl. Here is an example:


Second Chant


All on, Sultan, evoke two languages, debar us, my dizzy song key, sail

it o’er the parquet. The bandage is fine: man, front attention, hate

to lovey away; deal o Sally, edgy crossy, this bandolier, a travesty

of my visage. The result at nest pass infinite. Quart shimmies, places

of sand and dixie moochers. Any quarrel passes, a première aboard,

K Maldoror contains a tent design with dense arteries; car chassis figure,

numbril Kelly’s reflexes due cadaver. Mess infant, set Tecumseh.

Pewter quay set up pray tool and song, kaput, continue sans corpse and

illest, probably kill neon rest passbook. Assay, assay, Cheyenne avid;

lest the parquet tell kill it; to us Levant ramp lit. Any faux pas

contains deboarding; cartoon tar dress pays off me. To us convent meant

refuge, vatic cushy, dance in a channel; esteemed nature, densely boner;

car tune pants wrap us, alley fame, pending trust jury’s immense

grace aglow, bulky t’is, send dues, den, sir, a vicuña

satisfaction sullent meant visible. Toy Leman, prance ballet; I would

ray ocean rin her on; may Johnny pass the force.




Come on, Sultan, with your tongue, get rid of this blood that stains the floor. The dressing is done: my forehead dried and washed with saltwater, and I have crossed my face with bandages. The result is not infinite: four shirts full of blood and two handkerchiefs.


The first portion of this work, one of five in “Acoustic Room” is a homophonic translation – roughly syllable for syllable – of a passage of Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror; the second portion, the first few lines translated more literally. This is Isadore Ducasse’s original text:


Allons,Sultan, avec ta langue, débarrasse-moi de ce sang qui salit le parquet. Le bandage est fini: mon front étanché a été lavé avec de l'eau salée, et j'ai croisé des bandelettes à travers mon visage. Le résultat n'est pas infini: quatre chemises, pleines de sang et deux mouchoirs. On ne croirait pas, au premier abord, que Maldoror contînt tant de sang dans ses artères; car, sur sa figure, ne brillent que les reflets du cadavre. Mais, enfin, c'est comme ça. Peut-être que c'est à peu près tout le sang que pût contenir son corps, et il est assez probable qu'il n'en reste pas beaucoup. Assez, assez, chien avide; laisse le parquet tel qu'il est; tu as le ventre rempli. Il ne faut pas continuer de boire; car, tu ne tarderais pas à vomir. Tu es convenablement repu, va te coucher dans le chenil; estime-toi nager dans le bonheur; car, tu ne penseras pas à la faim, pendant trois jours immenses, grâce aux globules que tu as descendus dans ton gosier avec une satisfaction solennellement visible. Toi, Léman, prends un balai; je voudrais aussi en prendre un, mais je n'en ai pas la force.


The problem of this piece lies not at all in Tysh’s imaginative rendering of the original, nor in the original, but rather in the mapping of sound patterns from French to English. Homophonic translation goes back to Louis Zukofsky’s Catullus and has been practiced now by American poets for over 40 years. At one point the late Dick Higgins was hunting down examples for an anthology of such works, but I don’t believe that it ever got done. [Consumer alert: I’ve published one homophonic translation, “Do We Know Ella Cheese?” a rendering of Rilke – did I need to say that? – which can be found in Roof V.]


For my money, far & away the grandest example of the form is David Melnick’s Men in Aïda. Here is the first page of Book One, one of three completed by Melnick.


Men in Aïda, they appeal, eh? A day, 0 Achilles! 

Allow men in, emery Achaians. All gay ethic, eh?

Paul asked if tea mousse suck, as Aïda, pro, yaps in.

Here on a Tuesday. 'Hello,' Rhea to cake Eunice in.

'Hojo' noisy tap as hideous debt to lay at a bully.

Ex you, day. Tap wrote a 'D,' a stay. Tenor is Sunday.

Atreides stain axe and Ron and ideas 'll kill you.

     The stars' foe at eon are radix unique make his thigh

Leto's and Zeus's son. 0 garb a silly coal 0' they is

Noose on a nast rat-honor's sake, a can, a lick, on toe delay.

A neck, a ton, crews in a time, & ceteretera.

Atreides oh girl tit, oh aspen-y as Achaians.

Loosen' em us, tea, toga, trap her on tap (heresy a boy now).

Stem Attic on anchors, in neck cable. Oh Apollo on us.

Crews say oh Anna skip trochee, less set to pant as Achaians.

A tray id, a them, a list, a duo, 'cause met to rely on.

"A tray id I take. I alloy a uke, nay me day's Achaians.

Human men theoi doyen Olympia dome attic on teas.

Ech! Pursey Priam's pollen, eh? You'd eke a Dick his thigh.

Pay Dad, am I loose! Ate a pill. Lent Ada a pen to deck his thigh

As oh men idiots who unneck a bowl on Apollo on her."

      Nth alloy men panties up you fame as an Achaian.

Aida is thigh the aerie a gay eagle a deck thigh a boy now.

Alec Atreides Agamemnon and Danny the mo'


Melnick, who counts Greek among his several languages, gives a reading of this text that literally stuns its audience, for underneath its ribald surface he has managed to capture a remarkable presentation of the actual music of the original. You can close your eyes & almost hear it in either language. The Greek-to-English is simply possible, as is Zukfosky’s Latin-to-English. In contrast, there is just no way to bring across the sound of Allons,Sultan, avec ta langue with All on, Sultan, evoke two languages. More importantly, I don’t think there’s any way to improve what Tysh has very ably done. The disjunct, the absolute gap, between each language as a system of sound organization is too great.


This suggests that homophonic translation is not a neutral form – it favors those source languages (and their poets) whose sound patterns most closely approximate the target language of the transformed piece. This may explain why I cannot recall ever reading a homophonic translation, say, from an Asian language.


I simply don’t know if there is a tradition of homophonia in Oulipo or other languages, or if the form is specifically American (one might argue that its dynamics replicate the treasure collecting instincts of centuries of exploration by Westciv hegemons, that a homophonic translation isn’t necessarily that different from seeing an Egyptian tomb on the edge of Central Park). From my perspective, a more telling question is whether or not it’s possible, if there should not be a fortuitous correspondence of tones between source & targe languages, to assert other values in the homophonic translation, to make it anything other than a statement about this ghost dance of tongues.

Friday, August 29, 2003

The new poet laureate is Louise Gluck and her plan, says the New York Times, is to promote poetry contests.

Necessity is an interesting test of a poet. It reveals itself most clearly in those projects that have almost no chance whatsoever of succeeding, where, in fact, pursuing the project is inconvenient, potentially even embarrassing.


Or worse. One could, I think, make a case that Gunslinger functionally destroyed Edward Dorn as a poet & that after its completion there was little left that he could do. It’s more complicated than that, of course, always — in Dorn’s case you could point to the drug use & a difficult personality as equally isolating factors — but all the extenuating circumstances can’t erase, finally, the fact that something compelled the man to take on a project that could only have been impossible.


Dorn is an extreme case, though. Many poets seem driven to pursue projects from time to time that are inevitably problematic, but hardly to such effect. To some degree, it’s a test of their integrity as artists. It’s not a bad gauge of a writer to see at just what (and how) he or she chooses to fail.


I’ve come across two such noble shipwrecks in the past week or so, both projects that I really like in theory, but can’t imagine how they could possibly work. One of these is Lorine Niedecker’s 19-part serial poem entitled “Thomas Jefferson.”


The problem with the Niedecker’s Jefferson is one of the question & function of knowledge in the poem. Can one write usefully from “book learning,” or, for that matter, any mode of secondary material? That’s a question that haunts more than a few writers — I see it, for example, in the poetry of Simon Perchik, many of whose poems start as riffs off of the photographs in The Family of Man, that sentimentalist celebration from the 1960s. The question, which in drama predates Shakespeare, is entangled throughout the work of other recent poets who’ve used research as source material for writing, sometimes thrillingly, as with much of Charles Olson’s Maximus, sometimes chillingly, as in the work of Charles Reznikoff, and at times even ploddingly, for which I nominate the writing of Paul Metcalf as my example. Indeed, Niedecker herself used research elsewhere in her poetry, bringing in material she obtained while working in the WPA on Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger State and similar projects.


The ghost behind Niedecker’s Jefferson is not the third American president, but rather the eighth, Martin Van Buren. Ezra Pound’s Van Buren Cantos is at one level is what authorizes Niedecker’s use of Jefferson, as it does the use of historical materials in Williams, Zukofsky, even the early Eliot. Yet, on another level, Niedecker’s series is Pound’s rebuke — where Pound’s pres wanders about giving homespun lectures on the evils of debt, Niedecker’s Jefferson is all about the personal: about migraines, his daughters, Maria Cosway, his slaves, his debts, how he walked. Only one of the poem’s sections overtly addresses policy as its primary point, and that trade with Portugal.


The poem both does & doesn’t work, or rather, it functions in sections variously. The first —


My wife is ill!

And I sit


for a quorum


— is reminiscent of a well-formed haiku, but the third —


Elk Hill destroyed —


carried off 30 slaves



Were it to give them freedom

he’d have done right


— groans with obviousness. And, frankly, there’s more of the latter than the former in this sequence.


Did Niedecker intend the poem as an answer to Pound, himself the author of Jefferson and/or Mussolini? It’s plausible, certainly. Niedecker appears to have been a Henry Wallace Democrat, her politics consistent overall with most of the other Objectivists, many of whom — the notable exception is the spy Bunting — were far enough left to work in or alongside the CP. But the Objectivist position with regards to “socialist writing” was always one of deep conflict &, I suspect, some personal recrimination. Oppen’s great political work Of Being Numerous doesn’t emerge until he returns from his Mexican exile, leaving at last his Stalinist past behind. Indeed, while in the Party, he doesn’t write at all. Of the rest, only Zukofsky publishes more or less continuously and demonstrates a political commitment in his poetry throughout, even as it shifts from incorporating Marx into “A”-9 to eulogizing JFK thirty years hence.


“Thomas Jefferson” is not a political poem or, if it is, achieves that status precisely through its argument for the personal, an anticipation of the central tenet of second-wave feminism. It’s not so much that the poem doesn’t “work” as it is that Niedecker won’t let it. The moments of the obvious, these little moral tableaus that undercut the poem’s force as a work of literature contrast precisely with the specificity of the particular, which is the predominate feature of the personal — it’s all, as Williams once put it, things. But because Niedecker is writing in some sense about the president of the particular — the Bill of Rights is aimed directly at the protection of the singular against the majority & against the power of the state — but is writing about him abstractly as a man, the crux of this poem is a knot that Niedecker can never untie.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

Luther Blissett, distant cousin of Ern Malley & Araki Yasusada, has been "longlisted" for the Guardian First Book Award.

A note from Annie Finch:


Dear Ron,


In your great blog this week there is one point on which I must comment. I couldn't agree more that "platform independent" poetry seems to survive longest — and that Dickinson's poetry falls further inside than outside of that noncategorizing category.


Still, I must temper your claim that "there were no books in her lifetime to enable us to gain her sense of things." If by this you mean to echo the widely-held belief that her poetry was utterly sui generis during her lifetime, in fact that is not true. She WAS working out of a tradition, albeit one that is invisible now because it has been so thoroughly erased. Her rescue from the oblivion suffered by all her compeers (And why? The quality of her work, yes, but why else? Was she a less threatening token, because of her life choices, childlessness, eccentricities, than some of the haler women poets whose work more often than not turns out to share surprisingly much in common with her own in terms of voice, style, and imagery? ) only strengthens their invisibility. In 1987, while in grad school, I felt I needed to chair an MLA panel with the depressing title, "Nineteenth Century American Women Poets Other Than Dickinson," and 16 years later the situation has barely changed. ED may seem to have had a chthonic birth in relation to Emerson, but not in relation to Helen Hunt Jackson, Maria Lowell, and other poets she herself admired and in the context of which she situated her own work.




I had, actually, a more narrow idea in mind — that different poets, even within specific traditions or tendencies, can have very different ideas of how their poems ought to look in published form. And while virtually every publisher I know of has some stories to tell about a particular poet who was hell to work with, combining perfectionism, paranoia & the limits of the physically (& financially) possible, it is the poet more often than not who is required to accept formatting compromises — and often enough outright errors — that will impact reception of the work. With Dickinson in particular, questions of linebreak & punctuation especially bedevil the process of identifying anything like a “true” text, yet these very impedimenta profoundly shape reader response. When Dickinson’s lyrics are editorially “normalized,” it is indeed possible to arrive at — as I recall being taught when I was a student at Berkeley circa 1970 — a poet whose entire corpus can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. Leave them as we find them in Dickinson’s manuscripts & we get instead the most radical English-language poet of the 19th century.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

I normally am sitting down when I read anything online, so I must have looked a little awkward jumping for joy at The Skeptic John Erhardt’s response to my inclusion of Bob Grenier’s Sentences in my list of essential titles the other day. My knees hit the underside of the keyboard tray. Well, not my knees but my quadricep muscles, such as they are. But you get the point.


John’s comment, which is good natured & straightforward, is short enough to quote here in its entirety:


Am I missing something? Did Silliman honestly praise a two word poem yesterday, and both of those words were "Joe"?


And did he list it as part of an "essential" text?


I literally almost choked on my food as he wrote a paragraph about what "Joe / Joe" makes us rethink. I'm not saying it's stupid or lazy -- honestly, if I had to choose someone to defend a poem with the text of "Joe / Joe" I'd choose Ron.


The "Joe/ Joe" analysis isn't comparative, by any means. But I find it interesting that Ron himself (and others) can dismiss entire groups of opposition poetries in one gesture of macro-analysis (School of Quietude, for example) and yet insist that their own brand of poetry be examined from a micro perspective.


Outside of correcting his misspelling of the word entire, and removing a hyperlink to this very page, that’s the comment as published. I laughed at his second sentence, as I suspect everyone else will also. As a wry jab, it’s so very close to the kinds of complaints that one once heard from some art critics towards the work of Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko or Ad Reinhardt or even Andy Warhol’s soup cans and Brillo boxes that it gave me a thrill. I have apparently proposed as “essential” — and I won’t deny this — a poem so very simple that Erhardt nearly required the Heimlich maneuver.


Which allows me here to give John a good squeeze, at least metaphorically, and to say, loudly, “Yes, exactly! But, but, but….” I did indeed praise a poem that is so very simple as to call into question precisely the literary values implicit in John’s rhetorical question. Now I’ve done this sort of thing before, and with Grenier’s Sentences to boot, although usually my example tends to be a different poem,










But functionally the same principle applies for both works — Grenier’s “miniatures” are miniature only in the sense that Pollock’s drip paintings are only paint drippings or Rothko’s works, painted in fact very rapidly, might be thought of as sketches, or Cage’s 4’33” is only silence. What in fact occurs is an inversion of perspective common to any materials-centered work of art in which the reader / viewer / listener is forced to step away from all the preconceptions brought to the situation and actually see / hear / read what is there. It may be a comment on the conservative nature of literature, or perhaps just poetry, as a social institution that it took until 1975 to arrive at a space that had been achieved for painting a quarter century earlier, but this same recognition also positions Grenier’s level of accomplishment accurately. Grenier establishes a completely different mode of reading as central to the act of literature in much the same way that Cage transforms the act of listening for music — so, for example, you hear not only the note, but also the bow pulling across the string. And while one can, in both Grenier & Cage, trace the long history throughout the course of the art through which this moment is reached — and while this moment, while transformative, is in no sense teleological (i.e. it won’t tell us what we as artists will need to do 30, 50 or 300 years from now) — it unquestionably changes the game completely. That’s why Grenier’s Sentences was on my list and not, say, Life Studies or Howl or even The Cantos, even though each represents a moment without which Sentences could never have existed.


Now come the but, but, buts…. First, and this is the most curious one from my perspective, John’s rhetorical question — “Did Silliman honestly praise a two word poem yesterday, and both of those words were "Joe"? — has to be answered negatively, not because I didn’t praise the poem, but because neither of the words were “Joe.”  They were, and are, “JOE,” and the distinction is not trivial. The capitalization is as much a critical part of the writing here as its absence is from this other work I’ll choose to call ”thumpa.” It is the graphic ambiguity that historically attaches to the capitalized letters, to capitalization itself, that is at the heart of this work. Do we read it as two lines, as all body text, in which the word thus is understood as graphically “shouted,” and rhyme can be said to exist, or do we read it as title & text, which yields instead a completely different reading, one in which the body text is a very dry bit of humor joking back at the title. The poem raises & challenges the status of a title as no other work I have ever read manages to do, this curious act of language that stands outside and above the body text of the work itself. What if Joyce’s Ulysses were named instead Bloomsday, or whatever? Or Eliot had preserved his original He Do the Police in Different Voices rather than calling it The Waste Land.


In misreading every single word of Grenier’s text, John at least is in keeping with the tradition that still calls that last poem The Wasteland, not unlike the critics who fail to notice the quotation marks about Zukofsky’s “A” or folks who put equal signs betwixt letters when they’re referring to language poetry. So the answer to John’s first question has to be, Yes, you are missing something if you manage to get every word wrong in a two-word poem. And the whole of literature is what falls into that distinction.


My second but lies in the fanciful leap that John then makes from my reading of Grenier’s poem to


But I find it interesting that Ron himself (and others) can dismiss entire groups of opposition poetries in one gesture of macro-analysis (School of Quietude, for example) and yet insist that their own brand of poetry be examined from a micro perspective


when in fact I don’t think that I dismiss entire groups of opposition poetry in one gesture of macro-analysis. And School of Quietude (SoQ) is a perfect example. I use, I hope, that term descriptively rather than derisively. I use it in part because a primary strategy of the SoQ historically has been to be invisible to itself, only to name itself in terms of its segments — confessionalism, new formalism, open poetry, leaping poetry, etc. — or in such vague terms, such as mainstream poetry, as to be meaningless. Better by far might have been the distinction, which was proposed briefly in the 1960s by Mr. Lowell himself, between raw (i.e. New American) and cooked (i.e. SoQ), except that so much of the theoretically raw poetry — Larry Eigner as well as Robert Duncan, Jimmy Schuyler as well as Charles Olson, Jack Spicer as well as John Ashbery — is, performatively, far more cooked than the so-called cooked poetry, a lot of which might better have been referred to as a form of fast food, recognizable forms for people who don’t want to wait to see what the real form of the poem is.


I’ve written in this blog & elsewhere of the SoQ poets whose work I genuinely admire & enjoy, from Wendell Berry & Jack Gilbert or Paul Muldoon & Daisy Fried, to Bob Hass & Alan Dugan, George Starbuck & John Logan, Annie Finch & Thom Gunn. And I am perfectly willing to concede that if I perform the sort of close reading I did here on these Grenier poems on post-avant poetry in general — which on principle I think we should all do — I will find 95 percent of it wanting. However, my general perception is that I will find something much closer to 99 percent (or higher — the “five nines” theory of 99.999 does indeed beckon) equally lacking if I apply these same standards to the School o’ Quietude. And if I stack the two traditions against one another, five percent of one totally overwhelms the one percent (or less) of the other, which will tell you about my aesthetic choices, including, for example, why I make them.


After all, like that former Lowell student Robert Grenier, this one-time student of Jack Gilbert started off in a fairly quiet place — I was able to publish in Poetry, TriQuarterly, Poetry Northwest & Southern Review within three years of starting to write seriously in the 1960s not because I was good but because their editors had no standards beyond “it ought to look familiar.” Ought to look familiar is not good enough for me.


It is a classic hegemon position to have no name for whatever it is one is doing, but very specific names for everything else you want to mark as different. Thus there is Poetry Magazine, not Traditional Poetry Magazine. And there absolutely have been, and no doubt will continue to be, those who act as though there continues to be poetry and language poetry or poetry and avant-garde poetry or poetry and postmodern poetry, or however they imagine to configure it. But if the question is reversed — in the same way that you have to reverse your idea of listening when confronted with 4’33” or stand facing a Pollock canvas up close for the first time — and we ask instead what is it that connects all these modes of traditional or mainstream poetries, then Edgar Allen Poe’s joke in response to Henry Theodore Tuckerman 160 years ago seems at least a place to begin.** There is poetry, I want to argue, and there is the School of Quietude. Let’s try it that way for the next few hundred years.


So, John, take a deep breath. If you really want to see what’s missing, all you have to do is L¤¤K.






* In “The Chinese Notebook,” § 192, in The Age of Huts, and in an untitled interview with Manuel Brito in Brito’s A Suite of Poetic Voices: Interviews with Contemporary American Poets.


** Here I think it is clear that a failing of the entire avant-garde tradition has been one of not taking the SoQ seriously enough, of simply presuming, for example, that Billy Collins is just a postmodern Ogden Nash, when in fact he’s much worse. It may require a masochistic personality to attempt the project, but the history of the mainstream as hegemon has yet to be written for poetry. One place to begin, I would argue, might be with a deliberately ambiguous figure and then — Cary Nelson-like — branch out from there in a radial fashion. The ideal ambiguous figures for me would be two editors, one of The Dial, Marianne Moore, the other of The New York Times Book Review, Harvey Shapiro.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

In the fall of 1971, I was preparing to start work in the prison movement with a San Rafael-based organization called the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice (CPHJ) – it was my “alternative service” as a conscientious objector in lieu of being inducted into the army – and my co-workers-to-be were giving me this line about, “Now you can move to Marin County,” as if this were a terrific enticement to a 25-year-old poet (made ever so much more complicated by the fact that Selective Service rules effectively precluded me from being paid for my work with the organization, so that I was also looking around for a night-time job that provide enough to live on). I’d been living in North Oakland ever since my first marriage had ended and was actively thinking of the CPHJ assignment as an occasion to move back to San Francisco. I could get a night-time job easier in the City, I reckoned, and hitchhike the 17 miles to & from work each day. I wanted to engage the writing scene in the City first hand, not as a student at SF State (which I’d been during my previous stay in San Francisco in 1966-67), and I was tired of the university-centered scene in Berkeley. But for the life of me, I could not then imagine why a writer would want to live in Marin County, unless of course it was out in the hippy enclave that was Bolinas.


It was at that moment that a writer in San Rafael made the newspapers in a most unusual fashion. The home of Philip K. Dick had been burglarized and his safe had been blown up. In 1971, I’d never heard of Dick & the newspaper said only that he wrote science fiction, a genre I’d paid little attention to beyond reading a few obvious books by Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov & Robert Heinlein. I asked my new co-workers what they knew about all this & was told that somebody had told somebody had told somebody else that all this was drug related in some vague fashion. Either Dick was a dealer or owed a dealer some significant sum of money – at least that was the rumor. Word on the street was that Dick was a speed freak & implicit in that description was the idea that he would be both crazed & paranoid. (Having had my own crystal summer five years earlier, I was in no position to dispute that impression.) None of my new colleagues had ever met Dick – they were frankly much more animated about a motion picture that had just wrapped up its filming on & about Fourth Street, an ensemble piece with no-name actors – I was told they were “kids” – that would be called American Graffiti.


Although I worked for CPHJ for five years, I never met Dick. He apparently moved out of San Rafael just as soon as the dust & smoke settled, & it was years (maybe a decade) before I began to engage his works. Once I started doing so, I quickly realized that I’d let an opportunity slip by me – I would continue to read his novels as long as there were new books to read. And though Dick himself died over twenty years ago, I have yet to complete this process. A lot of which has to do with the fact that Dick was exceptionally prolific – he had the heart of a hack – and that a lot of his works were originally published by the sort of marginal-enough sci-fi paperback original publishers that they went in & out of print with strobe-effect periodicity. Now that publishers have figured out that they can profitably sell every single thing he wrote, Vintage Books is bringing many of the novels back into print all at once. Whatever their motives, good for them.


I just finished reading Solar Lottery, the very first novel that Dick ever published, originally appearing in 1954. Although Dick had been a peripheral member of the Berkeley renaissance scene around Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, Rod McKuen & Lew Hill around 1950, he apparently didn’t set out to write sci-fi until ’52, so Lottery represents very early work indeed. But all the elements are here already – the sci-fi as theology (or is it the other way around?), the deep paranoia, the rapidly moving prose dialog, and especially that signature apprehension of Dick’s of the future as always already devastated. In some ways, though, Solar Lottery is a more unusual Dick project than most, simply because he’s trying to get a form right & to attempt that, he has to believe at some level that these forms – both the sci-fi genre & the idea of the novel as a complete arc – exist.


He almost manages it & a lot of what makes Solar Lottery fun reading – at least for me – comes in watching the attempt. At one level, the complex narrative logistics of a game in which world leaders are chosen literally through a version of spin the bottle, only to become the immediate target for removal via assassination, seen through the eyes of a man who just signed up with the team displaced by the last “twitch” of the bottle, requires substantial plotting infrastructure. You have to build a Rube Goldberg plot machine that operates in only one direction, which Dick does on one level reasonably well. On a second level, though, he finishes the book before he completes the plot, not in the sense of leaving the ending indeterminate & ambiguous, but rather in have several secondary threads wildly untied right when they should be knotting into a tidy bow of perfect closure. The result is a concluding chapter that does more to sweep clutter under the rug than resolve issues.


Before we get there, however, we see Dick operating as lean & efficient a narrative machine with regards to the one thematic arc he does care about as he will ever accomplish, rendering Solar Lottery much more of a page turner than is typically the case with him. I know at least one sci-fi writer who thinks that Dick is already far too much the page-turner, & this accelerated machine is definitely dizzying. On the other hand, it’s instructive to watch such a talented author devote so much energy to getting the dominoes to fall, only to remember at the last moment (perhaps because an editor brought it up) that he’d set all those other narrative engines spinning off in different directions & maybe it would be a good idea to at least check on them at the end.

Monday, August 25, 2003

While you're at it, I recommend reading Pat Herron's essay on Jack Spicer that can be found in the Squawkbox comments to my August 22nd blog.
Only 28 poets under 40 have book deals with the trade publishers in the UK, according to this piece in the Independent, and their list of promising young writers is even more depressing. Revenant poetics indeed!
Lee Ann Brown in the Charlotte Observer has some excellent things to say (no surprise there).

Of the ten books on my “essential titles” list for Peter Davis, only two – Williams’ The Desert Music & Creeley’s Pieces – were originally published by trade presses. The other eight were published either by presses at the margins of the trade press scene (Grove for The New American Poetry, known in the 1960s as an importer of “racy” literature from Europe & Cape Grossman, a series that was edited by Nathaniel Tarn) or hardcore small presses. Frontier Press didn’t copyright Spring & All, merely noting that Contact Publishers had first printed the book in 1923. Sentences wasn’t even a book in the usual sense, coming in an elaborate cloth & cardboard box. The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula was self published, one chapter at a time, acknowledging its author only as The Black Tarantula.


Of the ten volumes, only The New American Poetry is available in essentially the same form as its original publication, although the current cover abandons the signature “flag” motif of the original design. Sentences is available only electronically, although the web version makes a terrific effort at capturing the essential elements of the original experience – the cards appear in different order each time you read it, for example. The rest, for the most part, are available in various collected or group editions. Of those, it seems to me that Watten’s Plasma / Paralleles / “X” and Jack Spicer’s two volumes, Language & Book of Magazine Verse fare best – one can read the works in formats not radically different in design & feel from their original collections (although Magazine Verse was initially published in an edition that used different paper for each of its six sections, accentuating its aim at the different journals towards which it was targeted*). Plasma can be found in Watten’s Frame (1971-1990), where even the original paragraph breaks have been kept in tact.


No surprise that it’s the Watten, Spicer & Grenier works that are still in the hands of small presses. When I try to read Spring & All in the crowded New Directions edition of Imaginations, or Creeley’s Pieces wedged into the University of California Collected, it completely depresses me and makes me realize


·         that most collected editions really suck – they make far too many compromises for the sake of space & uniformity


·         that when I look at the small, even miniature editions of a press such as Cuneiform, or even a standard enough small press edition, such as Flood Editions’ The Shrubberies by Ronald Johnson, what I am really seeing is the true potential of these poems in a way that is virtually never the case once they get captured by a trade press or gathered into the ghetto of a collected.


Think, for instance, of Allen Ginsberg’s City Lights editions books & contrast that with his final works from Harper & Row. Even a large small press – New Directions is the perfect example – can manage to make every Robert Creeley edition look indistinguishable & it’s practicing the same vandalism on the writing of Michael Palmer.


Of course, not every major poet has always been well treated by the small presses, nor has every bad design decision been the fault of a large press. The only small press editions of Charles Olson’s poetry that strike me as superior are those that focused not on the big guy’s poetry, but rather on his critical prose, especially the City Lights edition of Call Me Ishmael & the Cape Grossman version of Mayan Letters (again the personal hand of Nathaniel Tarn). It’s the University of California Press editions of the poems that do them the most justice. It was Robert Duncan, not New Directions, that insisted on Courier as the typeface for the first volume of his Groundwork    Before the War, effectively destroying the impact of those poems. [Rumor has it that the forthcoming Larry Eigner volumes will make this same disastrous mistake.] And there have been poets whose work has not fully come into its own until there was a Collected, such as Jenny Penberthy’s edition of Lorine Niedecker’s Collected Works.


But, in general, I wonder if there isn’t something like a decay effect for many poets over time, wrought not so much by changes in social context, language or trends in poetry, although all of these happen also, but just by the compromises, both artistic & economic, inherent in collected editions & other publishing forms common to posthumous poetry. One wonders, for example, what the forthcoming Library of America Ezra Pound Poems and Translations will do to/for those works. Yes it will be wonderful to have this material all under one cover. But the Library of America format is deadening.


In this regard, I marvel at the long term success of Emily Dickinson’s work, given that it has thrived in spite of rather than because of the work of her publishers, & that there were no books in her lifetime to enable us to gain her sense of things. And all of this reinforces my impression that what survives over time – by which I mean centuries – is precisely the poetry that proves most platform independent. 

Sunday, August 24, 2003

This completes my selection of “essential works” for Peter Davis’ anthology.


Kathy Acker, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula

In 1973, Kathy Acker was writing and self-publishing this novel one chapter per month, handing out individually bound chapters each month at readings around San Francisco. Indeed, these short pamphlets listed their author only as The Black Tarantula, a persona Acker used during much of that period. The only woman in San Francisco that year to have a crewcut, Acker came across as the essence of punk generation extremism, although once you got to know her – a woman whose book crowded apartment included parrots named Art & Revolution & hamsters or guinea pigs named Cage & Mac Low, you realized that the persona was exactly that – a protective shell than enabled Acker extraordinary freedom as both individual & artist. When you read the chapters, already stamped with their distinctive genre formula of plagiarism + pornography = autobiography & realized that this was not a con but an attempt to re-invent fiction from the ground up, the bravery of it as a writing project just made your jaw drop.


I use the word plagiarism, which Acker did as well, especially after she was sued by a hack novelist, but in reality what Acker did was to appropriate texts in ways that foregrounded their social presumptions. In this sense, she carried the use of found materials beyond the primarily combinatory functions found, say, in early works by Jackson Mac Low to a mode that has more in common, say, with the films of Godard or the murals of Diego Rivera. To this material, a second layer of discourse derived from the most exploitive modes of porn was superimposed, a method that allowed Acker to approach & address the abusive conditions of her own childhood. Thus, in fact, she could write a work that was, at one level, precisely about the construction of the master tropes of fiction, such as character, while in the same moment presenting autobiography almost in its purest form.


While Acker’s genre was always fiction, her use of the devices of writing as a primary mode of intellectual investigation made her an integral part of the poetry community, especially in San Francisco. From her and Grenier, in particular, I learned that one must be willing to go exactly where your vision leads you, even if that place seems not to exist or otherwise be impossible.



Barrett Watten, Plasma / Paralleles / “X”

I’ve been influenced by every book Barrett Watten ever wrote, including Radio Day in Soma City, but the one that has had the greatest impact on my own writing, the one I’m still apt to find myself reading in a dream, is this Tuumba Press chapbook from 1979. In it, Watten uses a combination of syntax, surrealism & philosophical investigation (both with & without the caps) to arrive at a New Sentence entirely different from anything any other of my peers had ever written. The opening passage of “Plasma” is as powerful anything I have ever read:


A paradox is eaten by the space around it.


I’ll repeat what I said.


To make a city into a season is to wear sunglasses inside a volcano.


He never forgets his dreams.


The effect of the lack of effect.


The hand tells the eye what to see.


I repress other useless attachments.   Chances of survival are one out of ten.


I see a tortoise drag a severed head to the radiator.


They lost their sense of proportion.   Nothing is the right size.


He walks in the door and sits down.


It gives me shivers just to type that up. Watten here has arrived at a space in which the referential content of the language can be seen clearly for the machinery that it is. Rather than draining syntax of its power the way, say, Clark Coolidge’s long poems from this same period do, Watten underscores the grammatical imposition of drama. All three of the pieces in this collection work, to one degree or another, from the same principles, demonstrating that the most investigative & intellectually demanding writing can employ all the devices of fiction without ever surrendering to them. If for me the lesson of Grenier’s Sentences was how to hear the phrase & how to recognize the beginning, middle & end of even a single vowel as separate moments in the poem, Plasma / Paralleles / “X” taught me how to read within the sentence as a dynamic architecture. That’s a lesson I use every day of my life.