Saturday, November 15, 2003

Mario Merz died last Sunday – to those of us who have used the Fibonacci series in our art, this is not minor or distant news. While every one of the artists I’ve come across who have explored & exploited this series – 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 etc. – each number always the sum of the two previous numbers – seems to have arrived at it by him or herself independently (William Duckworth to his compositions for piano,  saxophone or web, Inger Christensen to her poetry, Merz to his igloos often composed of found objects or otherwise anti-aesthetic materials), there seems no question that Merz got there first.

What you can do with number in art is pretty damn near anything, if you simply think about for a while. None of these artists are much like one another, though each is representative of the more avant (or post-avant) tendencies in their forms. I don’t think Inger Christensen’s poetry is at all like my own, even though her booklength poem based on Fibonacci is entitled Alphabet!! Merz’ use of the series is all about ratio, an argument for scale & livability. There is an air of precision in Duckworth’s music that seems a far cry from Merz’ ragged edges, or those of my own poetry as well.

Yet I do think there is a deeper shared sensibility at work here. It’s no accident, for example, that Duckworth’s influences can be traced back to the work of John Cage, or that Christensen has been consistently the most formally innovative of Danish poets.  

Arte Povera, a visual arts tendency from 1960s Italy – the work dates from the beginning of the decade, the critics finally “named” the school around ’67 – was both formally innovative & made a point of using materials from the world itself, rather than merely what might be purchased from an arts supplies vendor. Its closest kin in the United States is Pop Art, I suppose, although Arte Povera always strikes me as being implicitly political, or at the very least social, in ways that most Pop – Warhol would be the exception* – does not. Merz was a medical student jailed for anti-fascist activity when he first began to draw.

There is a 21-year range between the four of us. Merz began using Fibonacci in 1971 & within a decade all four of us had produced at least one work of some size using the form. Looking at the work of the others & how different they seem, not only from my own poetry, but from each other, what strikes me most is a sense of all the other ways in which Fibonacci has yet to be explored. But I wonder if, a century hence, somebody won’t come along with a theory as to why four diverse artists from one generation broadly defined (“too young to fight in WW2, yet touched by it in some fashion”) would turn to number as a way to open up the world.

Why Fibonacci is that key series I have no doubt. Its ratios are distinct enough to both convey a sense of shape, movement, development. Much of poetry is expressed historically in terms of prime numbers – iambic pentameter rather than the ten-syllable line, or the construction of a haiku out of 3, 5 & 7 – yet primes very quickly dissolve in terms of such ratios. There is no way for a reader, viewer, listener, whatever to get any sense of shape or direction from 191, 193, 197 & 199, for example. And it gets worse the higher one goes. The 12th number in the Fibonacci series happens to be 12², yet it comes equidistant between the 34th & 35th prime numbers. When taken as a ratio, Fibonacci is literally the Golden Mean: 1.6180339887499…. Φ.

Knowing how Fibonacci functions & knowing how one might use it in any given medium are two very different things. Here’s to Mario Merz, who saw it first.

* And would deny it! Yet consider that Guston’s turn back toward a more overtly political content was precisely what drove him to the iconography of comics.

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Friday, November 14, 2003

Nothing blows a hole in your work plans like 15 hours without electricity.

Thursday, November 13, 2003


When, last week in Orono, Jennifer Moxley asked me what the role of jazz is with regards to poetry for poets of "my generation,” she had something specific in mind. At the Poetry & Empire retreat at Penn a couple of weeks before, both Herman Beavers & I had used jazz as a model to discuss our work, but had done so differently. And both of us have a certain amount of gray in our beards – indeed, we’re both from a generation in which beards are not that uncommon. Moxley, who characterizes herself as someone who came of age during the heyday of punk, doesn’t relate intuitively to jazz as a genre – tho my sources tell me she listens to opera, so who knows? Yet Moxley is aware that jazz is cited as a primary source by an inordinate number of New American poets*, as well as by several writers from my own generation – Clark Coolidge, Kit Robinson, Doug Lang, Lyn Hejinian, Pierre Joris & Aldon Nielsen all come immediately to mind.


Beavers, whose poetry often employs personae & dramatic monolog, had been contrasting the role of jazz & the church in the African American community. He had in fact gone so far as to diagram it on his notepad as he sat to my left, with church as a vertical axis, invoking both the spiritual & community dimensions of experience, jazz representing both the secular & improvisatory along a horizontal axis. I don’t think Herman said it like this, but I’m sure that at some point I heard (or at least imagined) one axis as community, the other as individuality.


I don’t come to jazz in the same way at all. By the time I was old enough to start listening half-seriously to Mingus, Monk & Coltrane right at the end of high school, jazz had already made the precipitous transition from its role as the most popular musical genre of the 1930s & early ‘40s to a specialist music practiced primarily by black intellectuals. It was this practice & the role the musicians I got to know gradually were playing – Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of Chicago – that I responded to most of all. Not unlike Harry Partch, the renegade post-classical composer whom I was fortunate enough to see & hear lead performances of his work, his ensembles filled with invented instruments, invented scales, texts derived from graffiti & the letters of hoboes, these musicians took responsibility for every aspect & element in their music. They saw the possibility of music & its meaning in its largest possible terms, a vision that positions them closer to philosophers or scientific investigators (a role Lester Bowie both underscored & lampooned by wearing a lab coat onstage) than “mere performers.” Indeed, it is just this world of a black intelligentsia I see figured in Nate Mackey’s fiction that makes it so attractive (&, I would argue, politically important), an alternative to the unmarked Eurocentric given we’ve all inherited. That this world is also quite close to the role of the poet in the post-avant community strikes me as self-evident.


When I moved to San Francisco for a second time – the first was to attend SF State in the mid-‘60s – in 1972, I began to spend time at Keystone Corner, a club immediately next to the North Beach police station, so that people like Braxton & Taylor became more than just names on record albums in those days of vinyl. And I gradually became aware of younger, local musicians such as Idris Ackamoor, George Lewis, John Gruntfest, Lisa Rose, Greg Goodman & Bruce Ackley & then, once Larry Ochs & Lyn Hejinian moved down from Willits & Larry teamed up with Ackley, John Raskin & (first) Andy Voight, then (later) Steve Adams, ROVA. Some of my very favorite moments in the late 1970s, especially, but even into the ‘80s, was going to a session at a club like the Blue Dolphin or Pangaea, sitting in back & writing furiously as groups (sometimes up to 40 musicians) improvised simultaneously. A fair portion of Tjanting in particular was produced under just such conditions.


But most important for me, even beyond the syncopations & measures of the music, has always been jazz as a model for thinking through the issues of art. It’s obviously note alone in that regard – one might be attracted, say, to the film work of a Michael Snow or Stan Brakhage or Abigail Child, or to the work of dozens of different painters & sculptors, and get some of the same sorts of inputs as a result. If the influences of jazz seem especially audible, for example, in the work of Clark Coolidge, whose writing sometimes sounds like continuous invention in a largely bebop mode, I sometimes imagine the writing of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge as being painterly, not because she lives with Richard Tuttle, but because her projects feel as tho they’re invented or constructed series complete in themselves, rather the way a solo exhibition at a major gallery would be, and that I sense she takes a long time between projects so that each will be visibly, palpably differentiated. Her sense of “project” thus seems very different from what I expect from writing or music, & that’s one of the values I take from her work.**


Now, having said all this, jazz for me has always been one of several musics to which I attend. I’ve been listening to folk music ever since I first heard it in the civil rights actions of the very early ‘60s (predating by a year or two my exposure to jazz), world music is exceptionally important to me even now. Post-classical music since the Second World War (especially Cage, Partch, the early Reich, Hovhaness, Harrison & more recently Tina Davidson) is always also a part of the mix. All of these musics include, in addition to their formal concerns, other elements, aspects of what it means to be an artists – my sense of a literary community comes right out of my interest in folk music, for example. And to some degree these different genres double in their value because I can think of them in a freeform kind of way. I’m not invested in them the way I am different elements of 20th century literary history.


And that too is one of the values of art. Just as David Bromige & I once had long discussions about the films of Ingmar Bergman because they enabled us to explore aesthetics without getting into the “dangerous” territory of our own writing, other art forms present us always with models of how it could be done differently, if we but look & listen.









* Was it Creeley who first noted that what the poets at Black Mountain shared in common was “Bird,” Charlie Parker? I suspect that may have been an exaggeration, at least in Robert Duncan’s case. But there was Rexroth, Ferlinghetti & Kerouac reading to jazz accompaniment, something Michael McClure still does today with Ray Manzarek of the Doors. And Frank O’Hara wrote more than once of the performers he saw at the Blue Note & elsewhere.


** This is a feature that Berssenbrugge shares with the late Jack Spicer, but I have no idea at all where he gets it. Maybe from Martians over the radio. He doesn’t feel painterly in the least.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003


A question posted more or less anonymously – signed only “AT”* – to my blog in response to my piece on Bruce Andrews the other day asked pointedly:


Does it bother you to be publishing in a journal that looks like it was edited in the 50s still? That seems to act as if women do not write anything? What do you support when you send your work out?


It’s a fair enough question even if not posed in a very fair way. The November issue of PLR, the journal I focused on in both my piece on Andrews & the later Keston Sutherland contribution, lists 21 contributors, only two of whom appear to be women: Nicole Tomlinson & HOW² editor & publisher Kate Fagan.** Numbers like that do harken back to the 1950s & very early ‘60s, when Totem/Corinth could issue a volume entitled Four Young Lady Poets, edited by LeRoi Jones, noted feminist. Among the men listed in the included in the November PLR are Andrews (tho the excerpt given on the website is from the piece that ran in October), Bob Perelman, John Kinsella, Drew Milne (an associate editor) & Anselm Hollo. Contributors’ lists from the first three issues don’t demonstrate much more in the way balance, frankly.


I hadn’t looked at PLR before responding to Louis Armand’s request for a critical contribution. My piece had been languishing ever since Leslie Davis & her anthology on the 20th century disappeared into the night – a too common experience in the small press literary world, alas.  So I responded by sending that. Worse yet, at least I suppose from “AT”’s perspective, I didn’t immediately scan the issue with an eye toward gender. I suspect that the ratios for racial balance are similarly appalling, but I don’t know how I might check that.


Conceding that there are not enough women in PLR, however, is not the same necessarily as suggesting that its editors are old-fashioned chauvinists, although that seems implicit in AT’s comment. It is quite apparent, at this moment in history, that the problem of women’s participation in English-language poetry per se is largely a thing of the past. At least half of the interesting younger writers right now are women – women appear to be active in virtually every literary tendency. However, I’m not sure that the same can be said for critical writing. Even when we take in all the women who have written important critical & theoretical work – Jan Clausen, Judy Grahn, Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Dodie Bellamy, Juliana Spahr, Jena Osman, Susan Stewart, Sianne Ngai, Tina Darragh, Leslie Scalapino, et al – their representation in critical forums is to this day nowhere nearly equivalent to their role in poetry itself. There is a gap that has not yet been bridged.


Three quick data points to underscore what I mean:


·         If one looks at the 38 contributors to the 19 events that were the Philly Talks series, men outnumbered women 27 to 11.


·         If one looks at the critical discourse of the Poetry & Empire retreat, one of whose conveners was Susan Stewart, the list of original invitees was 21 men & 13 women; in practice, the first evening saw 17 men & 13 women present, the Saturday session shifted to 19 men & 13 women, & the Sunday concluding one – the one most impinged upon by people having to deal with their “real” lives – was especially lopsided at 15 men & 6 women.


·         If I simply scan the blogroll to the left of the screen here, I find 132 blogs by men, 57 by women, & 15 where I can’t tell the gender of the blogger or which are multi-person (& at least potentially multi-gender) blogs.


There are, of course, an almost infinite number of reasons why this might be so – every curator of every talk series (& virtually every male editor of a critical journal) with whom I’ve discussed this topic over the years has complained of great difficulty in getting full participation by women. The exceptions to this general tendency – (How)ever/How² and Chain – demonstrate that it need not be thus imbalanced, but the fact that in 2003 – twenty years after the first issue of (HOW)ever – these journals continue to function as exceptions demonstrates a deeper & more intractable problem.


Of my three examples above, the blogroll strikes me as the most fair index of the current state of affairs. First, because it doesn’t require an editorial gatekeeper to start a weblog – I try to include anybody who has a blog related to poetry or poetics in English. Second, it’s not Philadelphia specific. Third, the nature of the blog form is such that almost anything is possible. As some of my peers have taken pains to demonstrate, there is no critical threshold one need meet in order to obtain a free Blogger account & type on, so long as you are willing to make a fool of yourself in public. Lord knows I’ve read my own share of “Only someone called Ron Silliman could get away with Ron Silliman's Blog” type comments from people who think I’m too earnest or serious or pompous.*** You’d at least think they’d get the name of the blog right.


Given the presence of Kate Fagan in the PLR table of contents, I would suspect that the gender balance of that publication has less to do with any agenda on the part of its editors than it does their ability to address the issue. So while one might well say that they need to try harder (or better, or smarter), it’s a far cry from a circumstance of active malice.


Malice is a serious dimension, not to be discounted. Failures of commission are indeed radically unlike those of omission.


I spent part of Sunday listening to malice in its baldest, most stomach-turning form – excerpts from two of Ezra Pound’s fascist radio broadcasts. In one, Pound suggests that the U.S. entry into World War 2 is a the result of underhanded dealings by Felix Frankfurter, then a Supreme Court justice (also a founder of the ACLU, a defender of Sacco & Vanzetti & the man who convinced Woodrow Wilson not to seek the death penalty against Tom Mooney, the organizer framed in the World War I “Preparedness Day” riot in San Francisco). In the second broadcast, Pound actively defends the argument of Mein Kampf. Listening to Pound rail on in unmistakably anti-Semitic terms & talk of how FDR should “commit suicide on the Capitol steps” is blood curdling, to say the least.


I was subjecting myself to this bile at the urging of longtime friend Ben Friedlander who spent part of last Friday in Orono trying to convince me that Ezra Pound was, in his words, “a terrible poet.” I’m not convinced of that, but I don’t think there’s any argument that Pound was a terrible person. There is a difference. The Pisan Cantos, written just a few years after these speeches, is – to my reading – one of the great works of the 20th century.


So this is where AT’s question reaches me – what do I support if I think Pound’s poetry is not fatally curdled by his racist & literally fascist politics? That seems a far clearer picture of the ethical implications of this problematic than PLR’s inability to overcome a social phenomena that shows up almost everywhere in poetry, even now.


At one level, this strikes me as not being too far from the question of the value of any work produced, say, by a psychotic. Is the writing of Hannah Weiner, John Wieners, or Jimmy Schuyler any less because they were psychiatrically disabled? Reading the actual texts of Pound’s speeches, the “saving” diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia than enabled him to escape the firing squad & spend the next 13 years in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital doesn’t seem at all far-fetched. In fact, one of the great problems of schizophrenia is that it is a physical disease whose symptoms are specifically social. Because of who Pound was, his acting out turns out to have been more disgusting & appalling than that of the next generation of poet-psychotics, but is it medically different? What about the paintings of Henry Darger, who at the very least had the imagination of a pedophile even as he conceived of “the girls” as heroines to be saved? Where does one draw the line & how? There were right-wing politicians who wanted to condemn Stanford’s purchase of Allen Ginsberg’s archives because of his role in NAMBLA, a pedophile rights group. There are others every bit as appalled at the invocation of AIDS as a “gift” compliments of Tom Clark in Ed Dorn’s Rolling Stock.


The idea that this is at all simple is nonsense. At the height of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara, the Donald Rumsfeld of the Kennedy/Johnson administrations & later head of the World Bank, was also on the board of the nonprofit that governs Poetry magazine. While that may shed light on the kind of editorial inertia that has frozen that publication in time, it doesn’t make any of its editors or contributors mass murderers.


As an artist & as a citizen – roles that I’m not convinced are that different – I need to see the world for what it is, as well as for the alternative possibilities of what it might be, utopian & dystopian alike. Ultimately, I think that means being able to see what good there is in a terrible person – be it Pound, Céline or Leni Riefenstahl. And it means engaging in projects that I support in part, even when I am critical, helping to make them more of what I would want them to be.






* “AT” sent a second note on the same day that suggests that he or she may have attended the Poetry & Empire retreat at Writers’ House, or at least claims to be privy as to who said what to whom, although nobody with the initials “AT” attended. The second comment was similarly accusatory in a murky way.


** I should note that there are a few contributors whose gender I simply cannot discern.


*** My inclusion of Robert Grenier’s “JOE             JOE” in my list of “most influential” works generated several responses in this vein. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2003



Each issue of The Poker is available for $10. Two-issue subscription is $18, three issues for $24.

All orders post paid.

Make checks payable to Daniel Bouchard and mail to P.O. 390408, Cambridge, MA 02139



Props to Scott St. Martin, the 75,000th visitor to this blog. Props also to the person who can tell me the most convincing story as to how this use of the word “props” began.


There is a new Poker out, numero 3, & the darned thing just keeps getting better. There is some terrific new poetry, including major contributions from Fanny Howe, Dale Smith & Alan Davies, any one of which is worth the price of admission, & an interview of Kevin Davies by Marcella Durand that is more of a conversation, sweet & funny & insightful, but the real jaw dropper this time is the publication of an essay by William Carlos Williams, more accurately the text of a talk (or notes for one) the doctor gave at Harvard in the spring of 1941, possibly as an extended introduction to a reading. As I understand Richard Deming's preface to the piece (which I read after reading Williams' text, a procedure I recommend), there were/are multiple draft typescripts for this talk among Williams' papers in Buffalo (where else?), so that the text we are given here consists principally of what appears to be the final typescript plus typed comments from three appended cards. Reading the resultant document, one notices it flows but there clearly is a rhetorical shift right at the point when the cards come in. I wish that somebody at Harvard had thought to tape the darn thing.


The main body of the talk, "The Basis of Poetic Form," consists of seven numbered principles or assertions about poetry, four of which have extended notes that follow. At the end of the seventh note begins the section derived from the cards, which opens the entire discussion up for an extended consideration of poetry as ethics or at least ethos. Deming in his preface alludes to Wittgenstein in arguing that ethics & aesthetics are one, a point he sees Williams having in common with the philosopher (whom he admits having no evidence Williams ever read). Reading the piece itself, the connection occurred to me as well, not for that tie-in (which is largely the product of Deming's decision to include the cards), but rather because Williams' seven assertions is not dissimilar from Wittgenstein's initial attempt to encapsulate all logic into the seven master sentences of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.


The first of Williams' assertions reads as follows:


There are many ways of looking at a poem -- all of them misleading unless founded upon structure.


A sentence like the one above reminds me of just how much of a modernist (or neomodernist) I really am. If there is anything inaccurate about this statement, I can't see it. Yet I note how Williams couches this assertion of structure's primacy -- it's very indirect. It also (inescapably, to my mind) invokes Wallace Stevens. I'm wondering here about questions of occasion & audience -- did Williams see Harvard '41 as Stevens' turf in some fashion?


Williams' second assertion invokes associations as well, but in a very different direction, one WCW could not have anticipated -- Roland Barthes & his Writing Degree Zero (composed just 13 years later & with Rene Char as its literary horizon):


A poem is a use of words (as emphasized by Gertrude Stein) to raise the mind to a level of the imagination beyond that attainable by prose. It is prose plus.


And in a note that follows, Williams poses Jabberwocky's relation to Alice in Wonderland as an example. It is worth underscoring Williams' invocation of Stein here -- by 1941 Stein is famous (something she was not 15 years prior), but already being treated by the American media as an instance of avant-gardiste as jokester & joke (a role it will later assign to Andy Warhol, say). But that is not how Williams is using her here, & obviously not how he expects this audience to understand the reference.


It is, 62 years later, easy enough to recite all the ways in which the idea of "prose plus" can be problematized, even to cite Williams' own earlier works (Kora in Hell, certainly, but possibly also the critical prose in Spring & All) as instances (alongside Stein's Tender  Buttons) of the vibrant possibilities for poetry in prose in English -- no need to turn here to Perse or Ponge or Jacob. Yet what strikes me more deeply in this statement is the absence of the word machine: Williams does not call the poem a machine made of words. Is it the audience? Is it the changing nature of the machine itself as a social phenomenon, with Europe already sunken deep into the Second World War?


The third assertion brings together the elements of the first two -- structure & words -- in a way that I don't think I've seen done elsewhere:


And thus poetic form comprises the words and its structural uses -- that character which the structure superadds to the words their literal meanings. But the form thus achieved becomes by that itself a "word," the most significant of all, that dominates every other word in the poem.


Williams is drawing a distinction here between structure & form. Form is the structure of the poem and what the words themselves bring to the occasion. But note that, back in that first assertion, the term structure itself has never been defined. Now, however, the third term in this equation (structure + words = form) is given a very curious definition: it is not structural per se* but rather a kind of word, a word in quotes, a word as hegemon to the poem.


One could write a dissertation I suspect unpacking those two sentences -- they are clearly the most important in this talk -- and after a (for this talk) lengthy note in which Williams dismisses first Imagism ("as a form it completely lacked structural necessity") and then Objectivism ("there were few successes -- or have been few, so far"), both of which miss the mark due to an allegiance, Williams thinks, to the image, WCW himself starts to enumerate the implications of this three-part equation:


The structural approach has two phases, the first the selection of forms from poems already achieved, to restuff them with metaphysical and other matter, and the second, to parallel the inventive impetus of other times with structural concepts derived from our own day. The first is weak, the other strong.  


Here is my School of Quietude/Post-Avant distinction in a nutshell. Do you think that School of Quietude poets would object if I just followed Williams from now on & called them weak poets? Even more than the invocation of Stevens earlier, Williams here seems rather to be picking a fight. The ascendancy of New Criticism (with its explicitly metaphysical agenda & distinct fondness for "restuffing" poems from other eras) is by 1941 more or less complete. Even more telling, though, is the fact that Williams in the first of these two sentences reverses the power relations implicit in his own formula -- it is the structural that now dominates, which is characterized as strategic, while form is devalued as instrumental, tactical. A poem will have form, but it is the structure that will govern its fate. This sleight of hand can be interpreted in several different ways, at least one of which would collapse the two terms form & structure into a synonymic whole (as did the Projectivists).


The degree to which Williams is provoking his audience is inescapable in Williams' fifth assertion:


The weak approach to the understanding of poetic form is typified by the teaching attitude. Teaching -- that is, the academy -- is predominantly weak. It can't be otherwise and this, in fact, is its strength. It rests on precedent. But because of this it tends to arrogate to itself honors and prerogatives which, sometimes, it does not deserve.


Harsh words coming from a man who doesn't know the difference between that & which. Williams' argument, that weakness is teaching's strength, sounds like something out of Sun Tzu's Art of War. It is worth noting here the tacit distinction Williams is making between "the academy" and invention, particularly given the relationship of science to both institutions (a relationship that, in 1941, is soon to change with the advent of the nuclear era). Scientists draw conclusions from nature, the evidence, facts. Inventors use such data as inputs into their creative process, one that recasts the world as they produce new technologies, tools, processes. "The academy," specifically literary studies, only has what Williams has called "poems already achieved" for its raw data, but given that humans are social & must live within historical time, this forces the academy into an ever backwards looking role. Implicit in Williams' model -- and keep in mind that as a physician, he has by now decades of experience as a consumer of science & user of inventions, not a scientist himself but rather a practitioner of its effects -- is that poets are to the academy as inventors are to science. Williams doesn't outright say this -- this assertion is one of the three unaugmented by any note -- but I think it is unavoidable in looking at the system being proposed here.


Predictably the sixth & penultimate numbered assertion here focuses instead on what Williams would call strong poetry. But what is less predictable is the claim (or concession) that he makes at the end of this paragraph:


The strong approach -- made through the vernacular by attention to its modulated character, inventing from that ground to parallel the successes of the other eras -- is relegated too often to the service of outlaws. Over long periods the weak approach tends to culminate in the strong, establishing the peaks of literature.


Relegated to the service of outlaws -- who precisely does Williams mean by this? Whitman? Rimbaud? Pound? Blake? Futurism & dada? And what precisely does he mean by outlaw? Is it simply a designation of outsider status, so that Melville & Dickinson might be included? Or is he suggesting something more completely antisocial, narrowing the term down to the African arms trader & the Nazi propagandist? Again the paragraph carries no supplemental note that might unpack these not inconsequential distinctions for us. Further, what does Williams mean when he claims that the weak approach tends to culminate in the strong? Does Williams mean, as I think maybe he does, that a period dominated socially or institutionally by weak poetry leads inevitably to a reaction in which strong poetry overturns the apple cart? If so, then he is speaking in 1941 right at the outset of what will be the most compelling period of evidence for his theory, as the Second World War broke the connection with European modernism and allowed the American academy to become heavily dominated by the "weak" poetry of New Criticism, overthrown in the mid-'50s by the resurgence of a New American poetry. If so, it is the moments of disruption that Williams is identifying her as the "peaks of literature." Yet the language he chooses doesn't sound like the rhythmic alteration we associate with volcanoes -- long periods of settling & sediment punctuated by eruptions, entailing heat & light. Rather it sounds additive. That when the strong arrives (or is let in) to supplement the weak is when such peaks occur. Although I think Williams is clear enough elsewhere that what he thinks generally is the former, this particular wording is ambiguous enough that it might be heard either way. & given this audience, this might represent Williams' sense of a "concession," an inclusionary gesture, however faint.


At this point in William's talk, his structure of presentation has been very clear. The number paragraphs (as distinct from the supplementary notes) follow an identifiable structure.


1.       General premise

2.       Assertion: implication

3.       Assertion: implication

4.       Assertion: implication, etc.


Each numbered paragraph after the first has two sentences exactly. The seventh & final numbered paragraph must, however, complete the arc of Williams' argument, drawing the circle if not shut, at least to conclusion:


New concepts will always call for new forms and new forms demand new structures. The basis of new poetic forms and structures will always be that age which demands of them its fullest expression, that will be impatient of traditional limitations which conceal in their rigidities our destruction.


On one level, this is the longstanding political case against the School of Quietude.** On another, we note that Williams has again drawn a line between form & structure. On a third, Williams here introduces a new term to the equation, concepts, without saying much of anything about what a concept is in the narrow sense he is giving it here. In a way, I think that all of the notes that follow in this talk (which, including the three cards that accompany the typescript, is very nearly half the text) might be read as an extension or supplement to this assertion, drawing out specifically Williams' sense that measure is the term or dimension through which he personally attempted to address the demand for new structures, new forms.


New concepts. Not, it is worth underlining here, new conditions in the social world. Rather, it is the ideas in men & women that are generated as they confront this new raw data that Williams identifies here as the generative force, the source of continual, unceasing change that lies at the heart of literature. Always call. Change not for the sake of change but rather inescapably because the world itself changes constantly. Because the world itself is change. Thus the "basis of new poetic forms" -- the phrase differs from Williams' title only insofar as forms has become plural & new is new -- is precisely time. Social, historical time: "that age which demands of them its fullest expression."


But in pluralizing form & adding new, Williams is making a second argument here as well. The basis of "restuffed" forms, the traditional, lies exactly in a wish against the age. It's too simple to merely call this nostalgia. Rather, it is a denial, for example, of all the horrors of the modern, from the genocide of the Armenians at the hands of the Turks*** to the immiseration of the Depression, the rise of the Gulag, the advent of Hitler. On a more general or symbolic level, the traditional may even be read as a denial of death, not in the sense of protest or "overcoming" through good works, but through avoidance & pretense. Like my mother-in-law who would not allow her husband to go through the front doors of the oncology clinic because of the word Cancer emblazoned there. The traditional in this sense is the "hear no evil, speak no evil" school of poetry, even when & as it writes of rape, murder, genocide, abuse. The pathology of this world view cannot be understated+, but Williams chooses to do exactly that now that he is speaking at the very heart of its institutional expression, Harvard. His conclusion is politic, even as it is unavoidable.


"The Basis of Poetic Form" is not without its problems, although in my reading these have mostly to do with Williams' failure to fully articulate a definition of structure & its relationship to form as he uses that word. I'm not convinced that the ethics of Williams' address rises or falls on his inability to completely untangle those two terms, but disentangling the two threads, one of form, one of structure, could not help but throw new light not just on all the poetries of Williams' own time, from Imagism to the cusp of the New American poetry, but on the poetry of our time as well.





* Whereas in the famous Projectivist formula -- form is nothing more than an extension of content -- form is treated as a synonym for structure, at least as Williams is using the latter word here, a condition (it is worth noting) that affords form less force than Williams assigns it in his equation.


** And why, for example, I don't hesitate to characterize Post-Avant poetics as progressive, as when I deploy that word to characterize the Philly poetry calendar I run on Sundays. No matter politically to the left a poet such as Marilyn Hacker or Carolyn Forché might be, if she chooses in her writing the "traditional limitations which conceal in their rigidities our destruction," then she cannot be characterized as in any manner progressive, merely conflicted or self-destructive.


*** Why is it, after all, that both the Kurds & Iraqis oppose the presence of Turkish forces in Iraq?


+ Indeed, it is the very same dynamic that enables many Democratic politicians to call themselves liberal as they compromise the well-being of their constituents & health of the planet, in the pursuit of a self-deluded realpolitik. It is the process that has given us Clintons & Blairs alike.


Monday, November 10, 2003


Sometime today, this blog will greet its 75,000th visitor. Is it you?


Keston Sutherland is being vague. Actually, this isn’t accurate. Keston Sutherland is being very exact about being vague, almost painfully so, in his superb article “Vagueness,” which begins on the front page of the new PLR. Given that I was just as harsh I seem to have been on Jake Berry over this very issue, the question of vagueness – or perhaps The Vague – seems worth considering further.


Sutherland begins with Bertrand Russell – a cagey starting-point, given both Russell’s mentoring relationship to Wittgenstein (and through Wittgenstein the whole ordinary language movement) & Russell’s own commitment to political engagement (which leads not necessarily to, say, the Frankfort School or the later likes of Bourdieu, but is not so distant from the trends these continental writers represent, either). More precisely, Sutherland begins (albeit after several paragraphs stalking the point) by rejecting Russell’s conception of vagueness as “merely the contrary of precision.” The implication, as Russell proposes it, is something like this: the world is not vague; it is only human beings who can be vague, by not understanding their relation to a set of facts that is (not just represents) the world.


That’s a position that might lead one to modes of moral certainty & it is this predilection that seems to make Sutherland most uneasy. If one were merely “clear” about the facts, it would be self-evident to anyone that, say, the U.S. incursion into Iraq was the run-up to a disaster that may well take decades to unfold, detail by distressing, gory detail. Yet the very presence of moral certainty as a stance is exactly the tone usurped by the likes of George W & even the most radical Islamic fundamentalists, such as Bin Laden, who directly oppose Bush & the capitalist modernity Bush might be said to represent. In such a milieu, it’s hard to feel good about moral certainty.


Which brings Sutherland (via Heidegger) to this:


It is vigilant now not to avoid but to comprehend vagueness, to substantiate for an in vagueness its dialectics. This is a laborious kind of vigilance. For me it is most thorough only in writing poetry. I feel my work becoming thickened by inspecificities, I see and produce language ripped down a screen of vagueness. It is a kind of unhappiness and can in facile ways be attributed to anything: I say “over the lilac / and nothing and bake” maybe because, what? Kim Il-Jong? Because a Labour MP in Portsmouth called the Paulsgrove outbursts a healthy expression of democracy?

What I feel is a pressure not to specify, but more anxiously a pressure not to concede to precision, by which I do mean Pound’s sense of the word, and Russell’s sense, and the word less specially understood. This would be easier to theorise if I could believe that vagueness in language is a definite index of disappointment, or alienation, or even of the pretentious believe that I experience these conditions. I would then merely be documenting and not dementing life. It is perhaps vaguely such an index; but this reflexive circularity, the characterization of experience by reference to itself as a predicate, is now – in our present spin of days – a form of recumbent and ultimately indifferent thinking.


The idea of vagueness as a register or index of something concrete – alienation, disappointment, overwhelming complexity, whatever – is attractive, no doubt. Sutherland senses its implications for poetry &, quoting Gadamer on Celan, takes us to the idea, oft expressed, that


it is “obligatory” that a poem “not contain a single word standing for something in such a way that another word could be substituted for it.”


This is a concept that we have heard said of the poem a million different ways. It is implicit in the first two of the three principles for Imagism that Ezra Pound, H.D. & Richard Aldington concocted in the summer of 1912:


1.      Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.

2.      To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.


Sutherland turns instead to Eliot: “It is impossible to say just what I mean.” That’s a statement that might be read as yet another dictum against paraphrasing the poem, but it might also be seen an acknowledgement of an ineffability that lies right at the heart of what Sutherland intends here by vagueness. Sutherland carries this into an attack on the concept of le mot juste, the idea that there might be (must be?) if not an ideal order to any statement, at the very least a best one. And that beneath juste hides an entire conceptualization of justice. Sutherland asks


Is le mot juste, so admired by Pound, the negation of vagueness? Had vagueness been, at this earlier point in the century, unjust? Could it now be time to reverse the intuitive order of that relation, choosing to feel that vagueness is the just, positive term of which precision is the distorted negative?


Sutherland is asking, if I read him right, if in fact vagueness might not now be a register of the impossibility of specification as such in a world in which specification has been reduced to missile-targeting coordinates? The word that Sutherland really wants to defend, to propose, is just this: impossibility.


Impossibility is not just a faded watchword echoing the 1960s campus occupations of “Utopian” vocab. It is the absolute target-concept; it is a positive contingency of all humane expression.


Yet once the term impossibility is introduced, Sutherland does indeed invoke a utopian rhetoric:


this defiance is crucial and true, it is impossible, and as such it is truly expressible only without precision. . . . In poetry, this impossible defiance shines, like love as the ideal limit of hatred.


I don’t agree with Sutherland not because I don’t share a sense of a common goal, but rather because I think he has conflated different (and conflicting) circumstances into this word vagueness. What is called for is a little Coleridgean desynonymy, teasing out the differences between two states – a politically retrograde & dangerous one (much exploited by the current regime here in the U.S.) that I think is the historic & adequate meaning of the term vagueness & a second one that has, indeed, liberatory potentiality & which is characterized not by vagueness but by a specific mode of overdetermination Norman O. Brown used to call the polymorphous perverse.


To draw the distinction, though, I think we need to go back to Russell’s initial conceptualization & add to it the Gramscian notion of positionality. That is, I would agree with Russell’s initial assertion that the world is not vague, but would reject any concept of a universalizing objectivity because that necessitates a transpositional universe, the idea that these relations – and it is the relations to facts that Russell thinks can be vague – are not impacted by our position with regards to them, not so much to challenge the idea, say, that two plus two equals four, but rather that this equation means the same thing to all peoples, regardless of age, gender, color, history, class, historical moment & so forth. Thus the same “facts” might mean very different things to different people – if the current situation in the Middle East were not evidence enough, let us think simply of how any poetic device changes meaning generation to generation & place to place. In 1923, when William Carlos Williams first published Spring & All, the speech-defined free verse line was a concept that stretched the possibilities of English-language verse in ways they had not been challenged since the youth of Wordsworth & Coleridge. Not one, but several generations of poets arose who made great use of the device, particularly important in articulating all the ways in which American poetry was not to be confused with its indirect historic antecedent, British verse. This work reached its apotheosis in the 1960s in the writing of poets such as Charles Olson & Paul Blackburn, both of whom have been dead now for over 30 years.


Indeed, their deaths in 1970 & ’71 largely ended that tendency of poetry as an investigative approach toward expanding our understanding of poetics. There are many – thousands, literally – poets who follow modified free verse protocols in their work today, but few if any do so with a sense of extending the possibilities of transcribed dialect implicit in the work of the Projectivists. Furthermore, this is true on both sides of the School of Quietude / Post-avant Poetics divide. Thus, what the speech-based free verse line means in 2003 is quite different from what it meant in 1970 & even more radically unlike what it meant in the 1920s. Yet, in fact, the dynamics of what happens inside a line have not changed & even the subroutines poets run (e.g. enjambment) to signal The Spoken to their audience are largely untouched over the past three decades.


What then is a “fact”? It isn’t any less objective than before, certainly not if we gauge by actually existing lines in actually existing poems, but its position, both historically in the most general terms and with regards to what each of us might want to do with it personally, is completely different. To write like William Carlos Williams in 2003 does not make one post-avant or even avant. Indeed, it defines one as a particular kind of antiquarian, just like the neo-beats one seems to find in any major metro area, replicating Allen Ginsberg in form perhaps, but antithetical to his life & the project of his writing.


Vagueness, to my mind, is the recognition of just such pressures (social, historic, economic, etc. etc.) on any given topic, object, “fact,” without a perception of position. Vagueness lacks critical consciousness precisely where (and when) it is most needed. That lack is what defines the vague. When George W articulates the logic that Saddam Hussein was a vicious autocrat with no visible appreciation for the preciousness of life and Osama Bin Laden is a vicious autocrat with no visible appreciation for the preciousness of life, therefore they must have been in cahoots, he & his handlers rely on a sizeable portion of the populace not recognizing that the relations of these two historical individuals to – to just pick one detail – the role of the state in Islamic societies was entirely different, even if their background as one-time CIA “projects” is not. That vagueness was politically useful to Bush in the run-up to the war, in that it prevented some from questioning the obvious problems in pro-war rationale. The Bush program for the environment, the economy, education and numerous topics not beginning with the letter E relies heavily on just such vagueness, because infusions of critical consciousness would transform each of this issues precisely because they erode the welfare of most Americans (not mention our neighbors) most of the time. 


The shape-shifting overdetermined aspects of the polymorphous perverse (PP) recognize not only position, but direction & the compression of felt change. As such, PP certainly has room for the irrational – that is often our first register of changing conditions – but it works very hard at not being vague. The distinction in practice is not hard to draw.


Here is an example taken not from poetry, but from the most recent round of American elections held just this past Tuesday. In the village of Bolinas, just north of San Francisco, whose 1,200 residents include such poets as Joanne Kyger, Robert Grenier & Stephen Ratcliffe, Proposition G passed by a vote of 315 to 142. Proposition G reads exactly as follows:


Vote for Bolinas to be a socially acknowledged nature-loving town because to like to drink the water out of the lakes to like to eat the blueberries to like the bears is not hatred to hotels and motor boats. Dakar. Temporary and way to save life, skunks and foxes (airplanes to go over the ocean) and to make it beautiful.


Dakar! It is not possible to know from this electoral prose poem whether that noun refers to the city in Senegal or to the custom-designed off-road vehicle. Either one throws a conceptual frame that is consistent with enough of the remaining two sentences to make some sense & the co-existence of the two haunt the text in a way that makes it vibrant, not vague.


For sake of contrast, here is one sentence I quoted before from Jake Berry’s Brambu Drezi:


Their pulsing flesh-blue fingers dominate

         the boundless sky that lies between the vertebrae

      whose long electric veins

             pour a half-ape angel into old winds and hollows.


The only phrase in this passage that isn’t vague is “flesh-blue.” Telling us that fingers have pulses or that the sky is boundless is to tell us nothing, exactly, any more than resurrecting  the old trope of the half-ape angel tells us anything even remotely new about humankind. Long electric veins suggest the course of the nervous system through the spinal column, but in terms any child has seen dozens of times in science museums – nothing new there. Berry has some idea that he is trying to convey here – roughly “fingers dominate sky between vertebrae” – but he doesn’t have a sense of position & instead just plugs in cliché after cliché, trying to surround or overwhelm the emotion. But clubbing an idea into submission is not articulation. Knowing that “Their” refers to “ancestors” doesn’t do much more than suggest that Berry was fretting over biological determinism.


My conclusion is that Berry is vague where Prop G is not. Not that I expect either to save the skunks & foxes, but one raises issues in ways that makes me take it seriously, at least as a desire, and one does not.


Sunday, November 09, 2003

This week's calendar adds readings from Villanova as well as my reading with kari edwards at La Tazza. It still looks like everybody is anticipating a very quiet (or perhaps snow-bound) December & January.

The calendar has skipped ahead once again, this time to November 16.

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