Saturday, June 04, 2005


Before I headed out last Wednesday for a few days of birding along the Eastern Shore & Tred Avon river in Maryland, I got a note from Peter O’Leary about my comments on Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os that I thought readers here would want to see. Peter has kindly agreed.


Dear Ron/

 I was happy, as ever, to see you write about Ronald Johnson. I agree that this new publication of Radi os is something great, returning to availability a book that is better known than actually read, if only because the original edition is so scarce.

  I'm writing to expand on some of the points you bring up in your post from May 25, & to clear up some misperceptions.

  Radi os was originally intended to inaugurate a complete excision of all twelve books of Paradise Lost. When Radi os was published in 1977, Ron was already seven years into the composition of what was then called "WOR(L)DS," but which he would retitle ARK (note the spelling, which is always in all-caps). Given the scope & scale he was imagining for ARK, it was natural for him to include Radi os into the master plan for that poem.

 Toward that end, he continued to work, somewhat sporadically from what I can gather, on Radi os, producing typescripts for books V - IX & doing the initial crossings-out for books X - XII. However, as he completed ARK in the early 1990s, he decided that he was only repeating what he had discovered in Radi os as published in 1977. Not wanting the redundancy, he let the project go.

 Ron never intended to publish those additional excisions, nor do I. I'm glad they exist, & I suspect they will be of interest to curious scholars somewhere in the future, but with Radi os, as is, he achieved what he set out to accomplish. One of Ron's strengths as a poet is that he knew when to stop - that he was a stringent editor of his own work.

 In the mid-1990s, Ron assembled a collection of poems called The Outworks. As you may know, he experienced some difficulty finding a publisher for ARK. My suspicion is that, somewhat anxious for & frustrated about his work, he put together The Outworks under some stress, hoping to get as much of the available work into print as possible while he could. He even had a contract with a press to publish it, but it became clear it was unlikely ever to appear.

  After Flood Editions agreed to publish the book, I had discussions with its editors - my brother Michael & Devin Johnston. We decided that the problems of this book outweighed its advantages, most especially that it would be a large book for the still-small Flood, & that it brought together work from two very distinct - & different - periods of Ron's career: Radi os from the 1970s & the later work from the 1990s.

 With these thoughts in mind, I decided it would be of more value to re-issue Radi os in a new edition for a new audience. Jeff Clark's amazing design, which is reverent to the first edition of the poem but reimagines it through the new technologies of book design, brings the poem to life again. I hope the book gets read & savored anew.

 This said, Flood will publish a book called The Outworks in the future, which will include the late work Ron intended to surround his vision of ARK, including "Blocks to Be Arranged in a Pyramid" (which, as Tony Tost clarified in his comment to your note on May 25, was indeed written as a progressive sequence, later to be re-imagined as a broadside), some additional later concrete-inspired poems, as well as some uncollected sequences, & a few unpublished poems.

  The day you posted your note, I was in Topeka, Kansas, for the dedication ceremony of a monument for Ron, set in Ward-Meade Park, which is the place where Ron worked during the last years of his life, & where he wrote The Shrubberies. It was an amazing event. Here's a link to a page put up by Washburn University, which is located in Topeka. There are photos there, including a good close-up of the monument itself, another of Jeff Clark's designs - a thing of beauty.




Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Obviously, I think that editing a selected poems for a writer like Louis Zukofsky needs to begin by defining how one approaches the longpoem “A” – not only does it give one a sense of how much room is or might be available for excerpting from the shorter poems, but the process alone should help one to address what I see as a critical question – how to incorporate both the short poems & the lengthy segments of “A into a single, coherent sequence. No poet I can think of has such a disparate relationship between his long works & his short ones. Would one, for example, follow a strictly chronological sequence, interspersing sections of “A” with short poems? Or would one place all of them at the front or back of the book? Basil Bunting, for example, who probably comes closest to LZ in the formal gap between his longer poems and the snippets he called “Odes,” treated the latter almost as if they were an appendix to the primary work. An awful lot of Spicer’s early poetry got treated the same way in the Black Sparrow Collected Books.

But Selecteds are not Collecteds, and presumably nothing would be chosen for a Zukofsky selected that one could imaginably call an “appendix” to anything. My first thought was to keep all of “A” together – but then going through the short poems, I changed my mind. The great pauses & gaps in writing that poem really argue for weaving in the shorter poems. Putting them into this chronological sequence also would give a selected an additional rationale for existing at all – it would be the first book to actually show the interplay of his longpoem with the shorter works.

My instinct here – that really is what it is – would be to keep all of my selections from the short poems through Some Time together before starting “A in the text. Those really are the early works. Then I would run my excerpts from “A” – 1- 12 together. Then I would insert poems from Barely and Widely and I’s (pronounced eyes), following this sequence with my suite of “A” – 13 – 16. This I would follow with excerpts from After I’s, then “A” – 19. I would then insert excerpts from Catullus, followed by “the twins,” “A” – 22 & 23, then excerpts from 80 Flowers & finally “Gamut,” which I take to be the lone poem completed from the envisioned project LZ was thinking to call 90 Trees.

So which poems, exactly, would I include from these collections?

It’s worth noting, at this point, that I’ve included 54 pages out of 73 possible. From the 43 poems Zukofsky gathered into Anew, his second book, I would be more circumspect. There are some great poems here, but by now Zukofsky’s best work generally was directed into “A,and the overall quality of this collection reflects that. By the time LZ starts Anew, he has already completed the first seven sections of A,” and by its end, he has completed “A” – 10 & is already midway into the ten-year hiatus that will separate that section from those that would follow it.

I’m not going to specify which sections I would include either of Catullus, or of 80 Flowers, because I would really need to sit down & read both again closely. Catullus is the only book of Zukofsky’s I’ve ever sold without having a replacement copy in hand – a fit of stupidity on my part occasioned by the fact that when I lived in SF & Berkeley, I had to be ruthless in marshalling how much room was set aside for books (the impact of the cost of real estate on poetry collections). I never owned a copy of 80 Flowers I was using a Xerox of Robert Duncan’s copy until the Complete Short Poetry came out from Johns Hopkins. If I say that my goal would be to include 20 pages of each sequence, it comes with the understanding that this is a demonstrably larger portion of 80 Flowers than it is of Catullus. Both books are excellent examples – as is “A” – 22 & 23 – of volumes that ought to continue in readily available separate volumes, Catullus with the Latin on facing pages as it was in the original edition, 80 Flowers generally accessible as its own book for the very first time. Catullus is historically important, given LZ’s role in the evolution of homophonic translation, although there are passages in “A that also make use of the device. But to my eye 80 Flowers works better as poetry, so I would be happy to include a larger percentage of that volume.

Thus, with “Gamut,” Zukofsky’s final poem, to conclude the book, I would have – it would seem some 427 pages (presuming all pages to be equal, which they wouldn’t be – the UC Press version of “A” using a smaller font than the Johns Hopkins version of the Complete Short Poetry¹). Roughly one-third of Zukofsky’s oeuvre.

Again, published roughly chronologically as such, this is a volume that would serve a purpose, giving readers sense of Zukofsky that they can’t really get from either “A by itself or the Complete Short Poetry. This doesn’t mean, obviously, that these other books shouldn’t continue in print forever or that volumes that deserve their own separate existence (as the three volumes mentioned above do, or even 55 Poems & Barely and Widely) shouldn’t be republished.

Which to my mind proves that if the typical “new & selected” is a volume that almost always didn’t need to exist, a carefully chosen Selected can indeed prove to be an essential book.


¹ Which, I feel compelled to note, is not complete at all, omitting most of Zukofsky’s juvenilia from his days at Columbia, plus other pieces written under pseudonyms. Happily, I’m not aware of any that would deserve to show up in a Selected.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005


All weekend I’ve been thinking that there’s an absent third missing between Collecteds & “Books as They Happen” – it’s the case of the Selected. Sometimes even that literary act of category miscegenation, the “New & Selected” (a.k.a “Didn’t write enough new poems for a full book, but wanted/needed to publish one anyway”).

Selecteds are notoriously problematic & there are the horror stories about different ones, such Bob Grenier’s editing of a Creeley Selected that proved too radical for its publisher & was scrapped for something that the publisher thought more of as a Greatest Hits volume. You can find Grenier’s original table of contents in the 1978 Boundary2 issue devoted to Creeley – it would have been a great book.

So I was trying to think about how you might do that. How would one approach the question of thinking it through? I’ve always thought, for example, that my own work wouldn’t lend itself to that form, that you couldn’t intelligibly “excerpt” from these booklength poems that are themselves parts of larger projects. But I wanted to think it through without that double-sided investment of editor/author, so thought about who hasn’t ever had a Selected, and how would I approach their work. Louis Zukofsky. How would I think to edit a Selected works of his poetry?

Even as I’m resistant to the idea that one could/should excerpt from my own poems, I don’t sense that same taboo with his. Is that because it’s not my own work, or because there’s something fundamentally different between his poetry & my own (well, there is, obviously, but besides all of those reasons)?

So what would I pick from “A,” for example? I tend to read “A” not as a continuous whole, but as a series movements:

Of these, I would include the following:

Thus after the first 261 pages of the volume, I’ve selected just 70, and if I had to cut back, “A” 12 would be the first to get cut. The second “half,” by which I mean “A - 13-23, is not a whole lot longer, 302 pages, but I would include considerably more from this second half of the volume, which LZ did not begin until nine years after completing 12. The second half where Zukofsky’s greatest work lies.

That’s a total of 265 pages taken out of a work that contains over 800 once you fold Celia’s piece in. It would of course be the core of any Selected. But would these excerpts “represent” or at the least not entirely gut “A? My sense is that it wouldn’t, tho I think you could argue for including others, especially 8, 10 & 17 (another 85 pages). That’s where I’d have to start thinking about just how large my Selected would be, and just how adequately I thought to represent the shorter poems.


¹ This is where it becomes clear that Olson’s uses of Shakespeare completely trumps Zukofsky’s.

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Monday, May 30, 2005


The signature on Shakespeare’s will


Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare is one of those touch-point books of literary history & criticism, a volume so successful, both in terms of sales & critical recognition, that it becomes known just for being known. In fact, it’s a brilliant performance, a remarkable reconstruction of a life that about which there is surprising little direct evidence, a page-turner as narrative, always thoughtful, often provocative. Much has been made of Greenblatt’s use of new historical critical methods, the idea that, if Macbeth truly was written with an audience of one in mind, King James, then it is to the history of James’ fascination with witchcraft one should turn in order to understand the dramatic function of the “weird sisters” who set the plot into action.

Greenblatt’s methodology is open to both critique & parody. Not too long ago, a bookseller I know did a great routine on the premise that some line somewhere in Shakespeare might mention a blemish, which, he hypothesized, Greenblatt would take to imply that Shakespeare himself once may have had a zit on his nose, which would then lead to a detailed & learned discussion of skin care strategies in the 1590s. And it is true that some of Greenblatt’s assumptions are so over-the-top (Shakespeare writes King Lear because he’s thinking about retirement) that even if they’re entirely accurate, they’re also beside the point.

But if new historical critical methodology brought the devices & tactics of close reading to non-literary texts, Greenblatt in fact displays its advantages here in both directions, using Shakespeare as a lens to conjure up late 16th & early 17th century England into a remarkably credible diorama, while using the documentary legacy of that period to flesh out the little that is concretely known about the son of the bankrupt glove maker from Stratford. (And, happily, dismissing the “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” crowd for the grassy-knoll conspiracy whack jobs that they are.)

But Greenblatt’s most powerful contribution here is his consideration of Shakespeare as a writer, positioning him against not only is closest competitors in the theater of that period, but in the larger context of Elizabethan letters, the bumpkin from the ‘burbs who dared compete with the gentile educations of the so-called university wits. It’s a characterization that reveals the open structures of Shakespeare’s drama in the sharpest contrast with the closed forms of the sonnets that I have ever read. And it’s a strategy that leads Greenblatt to view the evolution of Shakespeare’s works as a series of problem-solving decisions – exactly how the chronology of any writer is best viewed.

Thus, Greenblatt argues, halfway through his career, Shakespeare makes his most important single discovery, that which separates him out from the best of his peers of the Elizabethan period, the construction of character. From Hamlet onward, Greenblatt demonstrates repeatedly, Shakespeare consciously proposes that the most important aspect of a major character in any dramatic work is opacity. Again & again, what distinguishes Shakespeare’s plays from the various sources where he derived his tales is that the earlier sources tie up loose ends neatly, characters have clear motivation, works are balanced & contained. All the elements, I dare say, of the well-wrought urn (not to mention Billy Collins’ sense of accessibility). Shakespeare’s constant revision is to break the mold, to excise motivation, to confound expectation, rendering character (and often plot) mysterious. Thus in the previous versions of Lear, the test of the three daughters’ love for the old king is always predicated upon his having to decide who gets which lands, and how much, whereas, in Shakespeare, the test occurs after those decisions have been made, rendering it capricious & likewise forcing the King to revise his original allotments when he banishes Cordelia. The irrationality of the act becoming a defining aspect of Lear’s character as well as setting the plot into motion.

Similarly, Hamlet’s ambiguous, ambivalent nature is a Shakespearean addition. Here, having already argued that Hamlet’s name & the then-recent death of Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet (which in the improvisatory spelling mode of the 1590s would on occasion have been spelled Hamlet) is far more than coincidence, Greenblatt discusses the impact of this writing strategy:

With Hamlet, Shakespeare found that if he refused to provide himself or his audience with a familiar, comfortable rationale that seems to make it all make sense, he could get to something immeasurably deeper. The key is not simply the creation of opacity, for by itself that would only create a baffling or incoherent play. Rather, Shakespeare came increasingly to rely on the inward logic, the poetic coherence that his genius and his immensely hard work had long enabled him to confer on his plays. Tearing away the structure of superficial meanings, he fashioned an inner structure through the resonant echoing of key terms, the subtle development of images, the brilliant orchestration of scenes, the complex unfolding of ideas, the intertwining of parallel plots, the uncovering of psychological obsessions.

This conceptual breakthrough in Hamlet was technical; that is, it affected the practical choices Shakespeare made when he put plays together, starting with enigma of the prince’s suicidal melancholy and assumed madness. But it was not only a new aesthetic strategy. The excitement of motive must have arisen from something more than technical experimentation; coming in the wake of Hamnet’s death, it expressed Shakespeare’s root perception of existence, his understanding of what could be said and what should remain unspoken, his preference for things untidy, damaged, and unresolved over things neatly arranged, well made, and settled. The opacity was shaped by his experience of the world and of his own inner life: his skepticism, his pain, his sense of broken rituals, his refusal of easy consolations. (324)

It is exactly – exactly! – this “untidy, damaged, and unresolved” aspect of Shakespeare’s late plays that Charles Olson recognizes in Melville’s use of King Lear as the template behind Moby Dick. Olson quotes Melville’s own words from the margins of his copy of Lear:

Tormented into desperation, Lear, the frantic king, tears off the mask and speaks the same madness of vital truth.

Later, Olson notes that

When Edmund is dying he fails to revoke his order for the death of Lear and Cordelia, only looks upon the bodies of Goneril and Regan and consoles himself:” Yet Edmund was belov’d!” This Melville heavily checks. It is a twisting ambiguity like one of his own – Evil beloved.

Melville is dumb with horror at the close, blood-stop double meaning of Shakespeare’s language in the scene of the blinding of Gloucester. His comment is an exclamation: “Terrific!” When Regan calls GloucesterIngrateful fox!” Melville writes:

Here’s a touch Shakespearean – Regan talks of ingratitude!

First causes were Melville’s peculiar preoccupation. He concentrates on an Edmund, a Regan – and the world of Lear, which is almost generated by such creatures, lies directly behind the creation of an Ahab, a Fedallah and the White, lovely, monstrous Whale.

Two pages later, Olson will conclude this fateful chapter, noting again (even as he lacks the vocabulary) the importance of opacity both to Shakespeare & Melville:

Shakespeare drew Lear out of what Melville called “the infinite obscure of his background.” It was most kin to Melville. He uses it as an immediate obscure around his own world of Moby-Dick.

Opacity, the infinite obscure, Greenblatt demonstrates, is the line that connects Hamlet, Lear, Othello & Macbeth, the first three primarily through the eradication of motive, the last through devices of plot. It is the same line that Olson draws directly from Shakespeare to Melville – and by implication, to a Maximus not then yet conceived.

Not everybody is comfortable with the “untidy, damaged, and unresolved” as Billy Collins reminded us just awhile back. Indeed, Nahum Tate’s rewrite of King Lear, supplying a happy ending in which Cordelia lives to marry Edgar, was the version habitually performed from the 1680s until the 1830s. This same will to neatness & clarity, and aversion to indeterminacy, opacity & difficulty is at play today in the School of Quietude. But what a great trick that Mr. Gioia’s agency is playing upon Gioia & his friends in underwriting production after production of the infinite obscure!

Sunday, May 29, 2005

John Keats
You're John Keats! You were born poor, trained to
be a doctor, and then decided you wanted to be
a poet. You threw yourself into poetry with
great dedication. You're very nice and
extremely dedicated to your art. You write
great letters and sexy poetry. It's amazing
how much you got done in your short lifetime.

Which Major Romantic Poet Would You Be
(if You Were a Major Romantic Poet)?

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