Saturday, January 03, 2004

Ron Silliman forthcoming events




24, Saturday, 1 PM: reading with Stacy Szymaszek, Chicago Poetry Project, Chicago Authors Room, 7th Floor, Harold Washington Library, 400 South State Street, Chicago





7, Saturday, 7 PM: reading with kari edwards, La Tazza, 108 Chestnut, Philadelphia





3, Wednesday, 8 PM: reading with Michael McClure, St. Marks Poetry Project, 131 E. 10th Street, New York City



With a little luck & planning, there will be a summer reading in Seattle, a fall reading & talk in San Francisco & a second reading in New York late in the year. And with a little work (not luck), there will be an “End of The Alphabet” event at Kelly Writers House, also in the fall.

Friday, January 02, 2004

One of the things I like about Glenn Ingersoll is that he gets to the point. Responding to my comments on the line “being ‘implicit in all language’, the idea that ‘without it even an individual spoken word would lack beginning, middle & end’” here December 29, he asks “What the hell is he talking about?” Good question. Herewith, then, a little demonstration. Consider the following:




One letter of the alphabet. How do we know that I “wrote it” rightside up? Or don’t have it backwards? Here is another letter:




Now we can make some assumptions – one is that this is the 16th letter of the alphabet and that, unless I have some version of dyslexia, I have not confused it with either of the following:


b       d


What distinguishes these last three letters from one another is the placement of the vertical bar – in the latter two letters the bar comes either before or after the circle, but in the first it is positioned exactly as it is for the letter b save for the fact that it drops below the line. We can tell if the letter is rightside up or backwards. The line is already implicit here in the individual written letter. It is exactly this positioning system we call the line that enables me to deploy these letters into any number of conceivable combinations:


bop            pop            bod


And from here the leap into syntax is simply the next logical step. The line has always been implicit in writing & it’s no accident that we learn to write on pages that contain not solely the primary line at the bottom of the letter, but a secondary one that occurs at the top of the curve in an “o.” Those markers are there whether or not they’re visibly drawn wherever writing occurs. Even in poetry that attempts to break out of the line, such as Robert Grenier’s scrawl works, it continually reappears. A poem such as the one linked here is literally all line.


My argument the other day, however, was that the line is not simply peculiar to writing. It occurs in speech & can be found in oral literature even prior to the advent of writing. The line is literally what enables positionality within a word & the positionality of words within any statement. For me at least, that is its core definition. In oral literature, the line is most audible through the evidence of devices such as rhyme, which demarcate units & break a long tale down into measurable (and memorable) segments. Imagine Homer thinking of The Odyssey as one long line. Indeed, the very word verse etymologically recalls the primacy of the line, the function of turning back, reversing to a margin.** Thus, the instant you have a word, any word, you find the line. Without positionality, there would be no differentiation between pots, stop & tops and this is as true for speech as well as for the written.


It is precisely because the line is always already there, even when we mumble amongst ourselves, that it is so very difficult to pin down in contemporary poetry. One might as well attempt to productize gravity or light.





* Also worth reading is Katey Nicosia’s response, tho I can’t say that I share her enthusiasm for Russell Edson.


** Thus verse can occur prior to writing, but “free verse” & the prose poem cannot. & historically, this has always been the case. There is no known language in which the appearance of these forms occurs in “reverse order.”

Thursday, January 01, 2004

Resolved for the new year: Blog less, blog better.

Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Saving the best for last, our postal carrier delivered John Godfrey’s Private Lemonade, just out from Adventures in Poetry. Considering that the website lists the book among its 2001-2002 publications (and the book’s page gives the date of April 2003), I shouldn’t quibble – it’s an utterly gorgeous publication, with the look & feel one expects from a high-end trade publisher, not a small press that still puts forward magazines that carry the weight of staples. AiP’s strategy, very obviously, is to pick the right vehicle for the job at hand & here it’s done as well as humans can do it.


I’ve never been a great fan of the abstract lyric, in part because there are so very few poets who do it really well. Not every poem in Private Lemonade qualifies as an abstraction but, where they do, Godfrey’s poems offer a master class in how to produce texts in ways that seem effortless & yet have incredible impact. Here, almost at random, is “That Place Anymore”


To be learned

          from but not

                   to believe






Even your

          sarcasm shows

                   you loyal


Twelve strings


                   yellow jello


Your hand brush

          ashes from

                   my eyebrows


That is just


                   Have a seat


The key phrase in this poem, the one without which it would all unravel, is, I swear, “yellow jello.” It occurs precisely at the point where the reader has to decide whether or not to create a figurative schema that will render the whole of what has gone before into a plausible narrative. Right at the instant when we most expect one key, crystallizing detail, Godfrey spoons up something very different indeed. The internal rhyme accentuates the device.*


The poem has a second decisive moment right at the very end of the very next line, just as archly slanted as the sudden appearance of jello. The word brush sounds as tho it is missing a syllable – is it? The fact that -es turns up in the very next word again is a form aural accentuation, but here Godfrey is very carefully not giving us any particular clues. In letting the reader hear the syllable’s absence, he gives it & takes it away all in one motion, a sort of sonic translucency that occurs in the mind rather than the mouth of a reader. That absent -es triggers a transformation in the poem – it stops being description & monolog & turns as a speech type into a dialog. Indeed, everything in the final tercet is quoted speech. The your & you that have turned up previously now are foregrounded. It’s a rather remarkable literary effect – as if the lens of the poem has suddenly zoomed in, casting everything into new contexts.


Some readers can find narrative anywhere – and this poem is, in fact, more figurative than many in Private Lemonade. One can build, for example, from ashes from / my eyebrows & read the poem from this point backwards as now suddenly “about” the collapse of the World Trade Center. But to do so requires, if one is to do it entirely, accounting for that fourth tercet, explaining not only yello jello but also Twelve strings.


And in poetry today, that still seems to be a very difficult leap to make. In painting, one might imagine as an analog of this sort of lyric a painting, say, by David Salle, one of those canvases in which the various sections are doing different things, so that one corner might be “realistic” where another is still figurative but heavily stylized and still another portion of the canvas is completely abstract. If, and I suspect only if, one attempts to render “That Place Anymore” as narrative or at least figurative, then it seems to me that one has also to admit the possibility of a “simple” poem just this complex, that different stanzas may ultimately play by radically dissimilar rules. (One might then argue that the purpose of a set stanzaic form serves precisely to yoke these divergent impulses under a common exoskeleton, to provide a soft unity over the harder-edged diversity beneath.)


But if one reads it instead without worrying does this fit (which invariably means does this make a master narrative?), then all of these lines function more like others that one cannot even imagine as referential – “Charcoal highlight dubiety” or “Teen chest warm spells” – so that one then arrives instead at a very different understanding of what abstraction might be & how it might work. This is because individual lines, phrases, whole stanzas can be abstract in Godfrey’s poetry, but they are seldom sans syntax. This puts Godfrey very much in the camp of abstraction I associate with the likes of Joe Ceravolo & Clark Coolidge, rather than, say, Sheila E. Murphy, Bob Harrison or Peter Ganick. The presence of syntax, even in broken snatches, permits the language to lift & twist in ways that go beyond what is possible through the mere juxtaposition of unexpected phrase neighbors. To return to the analogy of painting for a minute, it’s as if one set of painters worked the canvas fabulously as a two dimensional surface (think Malevich & Kandinsky), where the others used oil to cause their brush strokes to literally rise up off of the surface & to provide literally a third dimension (think Johns, Pollock, even that moment in Frank Stella’s work where it transforms from his black or gray “lines” to gaudily overbright protractor sculptures that jut out from the wall, sometimes in such materials as cardboard, metal or felt). Godfrey & Ceravolo in particular use syntax to get that sense of “lift.” One result is that I suspect some people will read Private Lemonade the way Peter Schjeldahl once claimed to read Ceravolo:


I rarely know what he is talking about, but I can rarely gainsay a word he uses. Nor do I doubt that every word is in felt contact with actual experience beyond the experience of words.**


You can read Private Lemonade like that. But, if you do, you’re missing at least half of the fun.





* But how many readers will hear the reiteration of phonemes from the last line of the previous tercet: you loyal?


** “Cabin Fever,” in Parnassus, Spring/Summer 1981, p. 297.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Marianne Moore’s silent rhyme can be placed into a tradition of what I would characterize as lineated prose that stretches back at least to Alexander Pope – actually, there are antecedents back well into the middle ages – and forward to such diverse contemporary examples as the investigative poetics of Jena Osman, the use of the linebreak in the poetry of Alan Dugan, the early poems of Ronald Johnson or the six-word-line of Bob Perelman. It is, I would suggest, almost an invisible tradition, one that counters the far more theatrical history of the prose poem, even as the two phenomena strike me as conjoined twins.


Even as Baudelaire asks, in the famous introduction to Paris Spleen,


Which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical, without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience


what is it about the paragraph, that visible marker of Prose Here, that suggests it can only be done that way? Far more mysterious, I think, than the ways in which prose can be poetic are – and I mean this in the most positive possible sense – the ways in which poetry can be prosaic. This is just part of what Pound is getting at when he suggests that verse needs to be as well written as prose.


But, deeper than that, there are ways in which the values of prose – its distinctive features – can & do bring value to the poem. What has not yet been done, at least not successfully, has been to articulate precisely what those values are. There would seem to be two ways of going about exploring that question. One is the theoretically based approach – to start from classic definitions of prose and work outward. The other is to look at these writers who have shown us glimpses – and I suspect that, to date, this is all they have been, of what a consciously prosaic poetry might be.


Part of the problem no doubt has been the ways in which the very term prosaic is used as a pejorative. It’s that old poetry = prose + X thing, which necessarily implies that prose therefore must also equal poetry minus that ever so elusive X. Yet clearly there are poets who have seen through that ruse – Pope for one, Perelman for another, Marianne Moore for a third – and brought back the goods for us all to see.


This it would seem to me is the absolute inverse of what somebody like Billy Collins is doing. A good project for someone to take on in the coming year(s) would be to articulate more completely how these approaches diverge. And why.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Marianne Moore’s poetry for me has always posed the question of the line. Or, perhaps more exactly, the line’s intersection with language, most often speech. I’ve noted before that the line remains the most problematic formal component of contemporary poetry. Yet it is poetry that has recognized & acknowledged that, even prior to the invention of writing, the line is implicit in all language – without it, even an individual spoken word would lack beginning, middle & end. One might well argue that poetry is precisely that medium which foregrounds the presence of the line in language, even if it does so with no great consensus as to what a line might be.


Since the age of Wordsworth & Blake, virtually all of the new thinking on the line – which is to say on form at all – has tended to come through various literary tendencies that typically get grouped together under the broader umbrella of the avant-garde. The prose poem, free verse, Projectivism all can be read as discourses on the function of the line in the poem.


Moore’s use of the line is distinct for several reasons. Although she often employs rhyme, she does so in an unsentimental mode that often makes clear to the reader that the reiteration of sound is at best incidental:


A Roman had an
artist, a freedman,
   contrive a cone – pine-cone
   or fir-cone – with holes for a fountain. Placed on
      the prison of St. Angelo, this cone
      of the Pompeys, which is known


now as the Popes’, passed
for art. A huge cast
   bronze, dwarfing the peacock
   statue in the garden of the
       it looks like a work of art made to give
       to a Pompey, or native

of Thebes. Others could
build, and understood
   making colossi and
   how to use slaves, and kept crocodiles and put
      baboons on the necks of giraffes to pick
      fruit, and used serpent magic.


The positioning of rhyme in the four sentences here in the opening section of “The Jerboa,” is such that it calls attention to the eye, but far less to the ear & pointedly bears no visible correlation to syntax – rather, it denies such a relation – or to pauses that, for Olson or the early Creeley, would have been sharply enunciated enjambments. The result is not only the slightest linebreak known to contemporary poetry, but an ability to write what amounts to good, clean normative prose – it’s a revisitation of what I think of as Alexander Pope’s inversion of the prose poem, formal verse that is in fact (or more especially in spirit) prose. One might even call it silent rhyme.


This is not the only kind of rhyme Moore used, nor did she always employ the device, but it is I think her most characteristic formal feature, one well served by her second major distinctness – the use of a vocabulary startlingly large and precise. Thus in “The Fish,” we get a sentence such as the following


          The water drives a wedge
   of iron through the iron edge
      of the cliff; whereupon the stars

rice-grains, ink-
   bespattered jellyfish, crabs like green
   lilies, and submarine
      toadstools slide each on the other


which hinges on bespattered setting up not only jellyfish but even more critically the caesura that occurs at that comma. It’s a surprising word at that moment & that surprise is crucial to its affect. Moore’s poems are filled with such moments as this.


The antimodernist claim to Moore rests in good part on her use of rhyme. Yet the other tradition has often also made use of the device, from Zukofsky & Creeley & Duncan to, more recently, Lee Ann Brown. Like all literary devices, it by itself is neutral & takes no position. Its meaning differs almost use by use, so that the question I always want to pose before Moore’s work (or, for that matter, anyone’s) isn’t of the does-she-or-doesn’t-she variety, but rather to what end? Most often I think she is demonstrating an obsessive degree of control within what might otherwise appear to be “merely prosaic” or even casual language. This in turn makes me wonder what, precisely, is being guarded against, not merely in the poem but in larger terms as well. It’s a question worth considering.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

This version fills out most of the La Tazza events through April.
The calendar has moved to January 17, 2004.