Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Whenever I’ve been paired up at a reading alongside a poet who makes great use of memory to recite poems sans reference to any written text – Ivan Zhdanov, Jane Miller, for example – I’ve been impressed by the physical feat of it, & in Zhdanov’s case, by the rich, even luxuriant prosody that flows from his resonant baritone. But it’s an impulse I distrust.

Accordingly, I’m terrible myself at memorization of poetry – I’m sure that the longest poem I’ve ever committed to memory in its entirety must be Creeley’s “I Know a Man” – and mostly what I remember from poems, even my own, are phrases or snatches of text.

The memorized text, it strikes me, is the antithesis of what I think of – or want to think of – as the read text. To recite a poem, one is required to have the whole of it in mind, to be ever vigilant as to one’s position – the way an actor has to be on stage – with all of its past and its future right at the surface of awareness. One is perpetually other than present with the text at hand.

That is what I think has always bothered me most about referential or even argumentative texts – they have their place certainly (and this blog is one of those), but the reading experience they generate strikes me always as being radically different from what I want in my own poetry. What I want is to be present in the text right at the instant one is reading it. You can’t do that if the text is sending the mind to other places, to characters & tales, to arguments and positions.

Buddhism has a concept of mindfulness, which means paying attention, that I often think of as related to this. In the west, it’s been sort of bastardized in recent decades into a “be here now” kind of slogan, but that’s never bad advice. One of the advantages of the new sentence – indeed, perhaps its primary advantage – is that weaving together works from disparate sentences (or lines), the reader is prohibited from generalizing their experience save for in the most general ways, prosodically or through an abstract apprehension (bordering on intuition) as to the evolution of form at hand.

The genius of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life lies in its ability to both do this and play with the ultimate-Rashômon presentation of what, behind the text as a kind of perpetual tease, is really a coherent tale. In some of Peter Ganick’s more extreme works – the dense uncapitaliized prose of MATHEMATICS(s) or the visually regular tercets of <a’sattv> – one’s focus drops below that of the line or sentence, down to the phrase or word, with no other mediating second channel than the poem’s prosodic tone. Not surprisingly, I think Ganick is interested in the text as a meditative object, whereas Hejinian I don’t believe is.

The great high I get when I read aloud – I can’t think of a better word to describe the experience – is precisely the intersection of my breathing and that perpetually forced focus in on the sentence, the line, the phrase. At one level, that is exactly what my work is “about.” And when I read Bobby Byrd’s quotation of Robert Creeley at the head of his fine obit in The Texas Observer

I believe in a poetry determined by the language of which it is made. I look to words, and nothing else, for my own redemption… I mean the words as opposed to content.

– my sense was that this was exactly Creeley’s sense of it as well.

It is hardly a surprise therefore that many of the poets whose poetry I’ve liked best in recent decades have had some kind of active engagement with meditation, Buddhism or, most often Zen, including Phil Whalen, a Zen monk for many decades, and Zoketsu Norman Fischer, the abbot-emeritus (if that’s the right phrase) of the San Francisco Zen Center as well as one of the finest poets of my generation. This isn’t even necessarily a Buddhist concern – I think this is the point where Fanny Howe’s Gnosticism links her right into language poetry. Nor necessarily even spiritual. I think one can talk of the poetry of Zukofsky, Stein and Watten, for example, in remarkably similar terms.

Nor does it surprise me, at this level, to discover that precisely what Billy Collins appears to find “inaccessible” about the poetry of Rae Armantrout is its requirement that the reader read. He wants that attention to go elsewhere, to a figure, a character, a tale. Accordingly his own poetry is a study in distractedness, which let’s recall is exactly what Max Jacob once argued that all poetry should be about. Collins’ verse fits that bill. Like Gertrude Stein’s home town, there is “no there there” in the most literal sense in Collins’ work. Nor in much of the School of the Q. That’s not an accident – that is what they’re after.

Jesse Crockett asked me awhile ago a trio of questions, just like those he asked Jordan Davis, including “How do you define poetry?” For me the answer to that it’s a constantly ongoing process. It’s learning to use one’s confrontation with language & the world to its fullest. Which inevitably means that one should sense oneself reading, just as the weightlifter can feel the weights – as resistance, indeed afterwards even as “burn” retained in the muscle & flesh. Reading without being aware of reading is not reading at all.

The other day I came across what I think may be the earliest historical example of the new sentence, and of language predicated on a refusal to integrate into higher, distracted mental models. It’s in the language of Edgar, Gloucester’s banished son who poses as a psychotic in King Lear. He first comes upon it in the great soliloquy that is the whole of Act 2, Scene 3:

The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb'd and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!
That's something yet: Edgar I nothing am.

Those last four words have always been my favorite of Shakespeare’s – they’re not so much grammatical as they are a series of concentric circles, starting with the outmost definition of self, one’s name, preceding through three other modes of being – I think it’s brilliant that nothing as a definition precedes am.

Yet it is in the following scenes that Edgar really displays a language of rapid reorientations:

Let us deal justly.
Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the corn;
And for one blast of thy minikin mouth,
Thy sheep shall take no harm.
Pur! the cat is gray.

This of course is only part of what Shakespeare is doing here. He contrasts the calculatedly faux folly of Edgar with Lear’s own deteriorating condition as well as the duplicitous (but superficially crystal clear) language of Lear’s older daughters, Goneril and Regan, their husbands & the would-be parricide Edmund. The whole chain of events set in motion by Cordelia’s refusal to speak untruthfully. Lear is about language, embodying a whole range of possibilities.

This of course reminded me that it is Lear that Olson spells out so brilliantly as the Ur-text behind Moby Dick in Call Me Ishmael. And that, if – to use my Zukofskyian counter-example, the other approach to Shakespeare among the late modern poets – the key lesson of Shakespeare is that love is to reason as eyes are to the mind, a key part of Lear turns on the blinding of Gloucester by Cornwall. There seems so much here to think about! Yet if there’s an earlier instance of this literary device that 370 years hence would become the new sentence, I’m not aware of it.