Monday, February 06, 2006

Back in the days when an 8088 was the only computer chip anyone seemed to have heard of & a PC meant a “green screen,”¹ I knew folks who argued, with some seriousness, that in a generation we would all be writing 22-line poems, 22 lines being what were displayed on these screens. That never happened, largely because the green screen was gone by the time personal computing became truly ubiquitous, roughly at the point that Windows 3.1 became the standard operating system, borrowing heavily as it did from the ideas of graphic representation that the folks at Apple had ripped from the labs at Xerox PARC. By the time the Windows vs. Mac wars were largely settled – less than four percent of the world uses a Mac – HTML and the world wide web had arrived, the current graphic regime. It might not be what we use when we’re writing – I still use notebooks as well as a Palm Pilot – but sooner or later, it seems to be what poems need to be coded in for them to be disseminated widely. And as anyone who has tried it has discovered, HTML is great for certain things, but pretty unwieldy for others.

Open field composition, as Robert Duncan characterized one writing mode that he shared with Charles Olson, the use of the entire page as a canvas, freed up from the perpetual anchor of a left margin, is one thing HTML does not do well, certainly not compared with the old days of the typewriter, especially before proportional typing became commonplace. Not that print has a perfect track record here either. Using all – and sometimes more – of the page, with ample portions of white space, this approach to the visual scoring of the poem once led Robert Duncan to insist that the first volume of Ground Work be typed – not typeset – in a courier font, which insured the volume’s failure to have any impact once it was published (and helped precipitate the decline in Duncan’s general reputation).

If you look around the web, you’ll notice just how seldom you see open field composition techniques in the poems that turn up here, including on this blog. If you are a master at HTML like Karl Young, you might try something famously ambitious, such as putting all of Larry Eigner’s Air the Trees into the format, but go one step further in the spatialization of the page, as with Jake Berry’s Brambu Drezi, and even Karl resorts to using JPEG files scanned from the original hardcopy. I bow to Karl’s skill here, even if I demur from the use of JPEGs as an adequate mode for representing text on the web.

All of this contributes, I think, toward a gradual lessening of open field texts among today’s poets. Seldom in the past half century has the tyranny of the left-hand margin felt more absolute. So it’s intriguing, from my perspective, to see two recent books, both superb just as poetry, come out in “wide” formats that are required in order to retain with some kind of integrity the look & feel of the poem on the page.

The first of these The California Poem by Eleni Sikelianos, was published in 2004 by Coffee House Press, in a 7.5” high, 8.5” wide format. The second, just out from Tupelo Press, is Why is the Edge Always Windy? by Mông-Lan, 9” high, 8.25” wide. The dimensions are important, because both publishers have taken great pains to design each book to meet the needs of the text. In an age of standardized formats, this is worth noting.

I have no evidence to suggest whether or not Eleni Sikelianos & Mông-Lan have ever even heard of one another, let alone read one another or met, even tho Robert Creeley blurbs both books. Yet both poets share an exceptional sense of self-possession in their writing, an ease with their considerable ambition, and a sense of the line that simply is not possible without the history of the Projectivists nearly half a century ago.

Sikelianos in some ways is the most Olsonian poet we have had over the past half century. The California Poem is to the golden state in more than a few ways what Maximus is to Gloucester. More importantly, Sikelianos’ sense of the line here stretches out to the long & internally complex, something no one has ever done better than Olson, and that almost no one has even attempted since Olson’s death 35 years ago. In practice, tho, she uses this line sparingly, to maximize its impact. It shows up most often as one line in a stanza of four or five lines, often midway down the page, and on occasion all by its lonesome, floating in the white space between stanzas. Sikelianos strays from the left margin, but she doesn’t abandon it. She doesn’t sound the slightest like Olson, even when she strings several enjambed lines together in a row. To this, Sikelianos adds prose, photos, drawings, timelines, specific detail (getting robbed), mythos, a long view & an analytical mind. It’s a great trip.

Mông-Lan works with a floating line and often shows no sense of left margin. Here is “A Tractor”:

        squats   waiting for its season
                                     the steel hand
             hungering night
                                music of crickets   whiskers resound
                         wheat-walking fields
               hours of black rain
 descend like cut hair      gnawing crevices   moss & mucus
                                          come alive
                     awaken the clay

An earlier version of this poem can be found in Manoa and its instructive to see that while a few words were deleted, maybe eighty percent of the changes made consisted of pushing lines into different spatial formations. It’s a sense of the page as space that I haven’t seen since the death of Larry Eigner. Unlike Eigner, whose poems sometimes feel as if they’re escaping a left-hand margin that remains implicit, some of Mông-Lan’s poems, like the above, feel almost as if the hidden margin lies somewhere in the middle of this text, truly a vertical spine.

Note, however, that the poem beyond this form is very much a traditional pastoral lyric. The anthropomorphic conceit waiting for its season, with no hint of irony, is a device one hardly ever comes across outside to the School of Quietude, at least not since the 19th century.² A lot of the individual moments in Why is the Edge Always Windy? feel like a confrontation between these two impulses, as if what she wants to accomplish is to write mainstream poems (in every sense of that adjective) through Projectivist means. Her work transcends these two literary frames precisely because so many of the poems here – more often in serial form than not – are so manifestly ambitious & her eye – she’s a visual artist as well as a poet – is fabulously exact.

Sikelianos & Mông-Lan are hardly the only poets in recent years to use a line like this – Kathleen Fraser, Hank Lazer³ & Barbara Guest have all spread the page out, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts have an almost Poundian sense of formal possibility, although in her case as generally in Fraser’s, there’s a tendency not to let the line get too long. One of the things I trust most about Mông-Lan’s poetry is its willingness to abandon that sense of caution.


¹ I was a fan of the Kaypro II in those days, in good part because of the better contrast that its orange print made against the black screen.

² With irony, however, the New York School (all generations) and even the 1970’s Actualists have done wonderfully comic things with this device.

³ Poets whose surnames do not rhyme, by the way.