Saturday, August 30, 2003
My second example of what I
might characterize as a noble shipwreck in poetry is
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,
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
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
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
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.”
with the Niedecker’s
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.
Niedecker intend the poem as an answer to Pound, himself the author of
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
Thursday, August 28, 2003
A note from
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
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
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
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
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,
all, like that former
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
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 —
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
It was at
that moment that a writer in
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.
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
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
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.
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
· 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.
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
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
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
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
Sunday, August 24, 2003
This completes my selection of “essential works” for Peter Davis’ anthology.
Kathy Acker, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula
Kathy Acker was writing and self-publishing this novel one chapter per month, handing
out individually bound chapters each month at readings around
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.
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
influenced by every book
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.