Monday, March 05, 2007

I’ve always found critical writing to be a useful activity. Indeed, when I first began writing relatively theoretical articles, first with “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World” – a piece David Highsmith had to talk me into writing for an art journal he was working on – and not all that much later with “The New Sentence,” which began as a talk in Bob Perelman’s series of poets’ talks, I was pulling together lots of inchoate ideas that had been floating around in my thinking with only the loosest connections for some time, but which I had never set down in anything like a systematic manner. So just writing them up was as surprising to me as anything I wrote could have been to any other reader later on. Plus the fact that as you set things down, new pathways begin to suggest themselves, making the actual writing process really a journey of discovery. Which has a lot to do with why it’s so much fun.

The day I finally gave my talk on the new sentence, I was in the kitchen in my top-floor flat on San Jose Avenue in San Francisco typing like a crazed weasel on three pounds of meth until my downstairs neighbor, Alan Bernheimer, knocked on the back door to let me know that “we really really need to go right now if we don’t want the crowd to give up & leave.” It wasn’t the first time he’d come to check on me that afternoon. Once we got to the San Francisco Art Institute, I found myself improvising off a text – it must be in the archives at UC San Diego somewhere – that was more outline than anything else. Later when I typed it up for the anthology Bob did in his journal, Hills, I mostly just put the main points down in the manner of speech. Later, as I was editing the talk into a format for the Roof Press Book, James Sherry and my editor, David Sternbach, forced me to be clear in some thing that had slid along without being questioned. All of which is to say that what you read in the essay by that name really has no more to do with the actual talk I gave (let alone my much more cryptic notes) than the notes of Saussure’s students could be said to really be his thinking about linguistics. It’s in the vicinity, but only an approximation.

It was toward the end of that talk when I was attempting to list the qualities of the new sentence, as such, that I first mentioned torque:

1)     The paragraph organizes the sentences;

2)     The paragraph is a unity of quantity, not logic or argument;

3)     Sentence length is a unit of measure;

4)     Sentence structure is altered for torque, or increased polysemy / ambiguity;

5)     Syllogistic movement is: (a) limited; (b) controlled;

6)     Primary syllogistic movement is between the preceding and following sentences;

7)     Secondary syllogistic movement is toward the paragraph as a whole, or the total work;

8)     The limiting of syllogistic movement keeps the reader’s attention at or very close to the level of the paragraph, that is, most often at the sentence level or below.

The number on torque is, in fact, the only one that talks about what occurs within the sentence, as such. Torque, the word, was something I’d never used critically before. Indeed, I’d probably never invoked in my writing at all before that moment. It was a concept I had gotten in, of all places, my ninth or tenth grade electricity shop, a requirement for boys at Albany High, in which we hand-built little motors while attempting to learn the underlying principles of the engine. I understood it – I could have been quite wrong about this – as the force inherent in a twisting motion, and thus specifically as an expression of force. I was, at that moment, thinking specifically of the prose of Peter Seaton, Carla Harryman & Leslie Scalapino, all of whom struck me as masters syntax that started to go in one direction, only to veer off at unpredictable angles, creating as they went something of far greater power than referential or abstract meaning would lead one to suspect. Here are two paragraphs – the first of Seaton’s contribution to In the American Tree – from The Son Master:

The pro stampede which grows out of our associations of the west completely explodes it.

And here it comes again, father stuff and substitution leaving it to read persons and physiological passages for the sake of you under my own roof. I need my burg tomorrow, wishing us onto a field of appreciation like getting happiness from God or Kings or Congress. It’s clear close to the letters leaving everything as a demonstration of alarm, dangers of the test for George for a notion I would like to fix it so. Reading ambition, what the father in English charges streaks as a single line under the thundering thumb.

What is the status of that first sentence? It’s not, strictly speaking, referential, tho a clever reading shouldn’t have that much trouble gleaning meaning from it. But the word choices – the diction of the abbreviated pro or the insertion of the intensifier – seem determined to keep our focus as close to the word or phrase as might be possible. And consistently, throughout these few sentences and elsewhere in Seaton’s work, we come across sentences that can’t possibly be boiled down because at every juncture the actual focus of what is being said can change, not unintelligibly so, but with such localism of attention that the reader is forever refocusing on what “here” means, what “now” is.

This of course is something that occurs in a lot of poetry that is not in prose, particularly since the end of the Second World War and the advent of an interest in Asian literary heritage on the part of many of the New American poets. Phil Whalen seems a very clear instance of this, but so are Anselm Hollo, Robert Creeley, Larry Eigner. What Seaton is showing – not unlike some of what we can learn by close reading Leslie Scalapino – is how this might occur as well in prose. It’s something one finds a great deal of, say, in the early short fiction of Robert Creeley, not to mention Jack Kerouac, in whose works sentences often stretch out so far that keeping it all in mind isn’t even a possibility, so that you are forced to readjust your focus, something that radically reconstitutes what reading means.

The Son Master is prose torqued up high, close to what you will find it at times in the work of Clark Coolidge, neither of whom prove as angular as, say, Scalapino. Whereas the normative view of the sentence is as a “complete thought” – subject (often a noun phrase) + predicate – these are sentences that prove reluctant to conclude, preferring, at moments, to turn & turn & turn again:

A person walking in the freezing countryside in a parka, gloves wool clothes, and no one else being around. Angry voices wrestling in the person as she’s concentrating and walking, beside the road in the snow were the marks of a struggle of a bird picking up an animal. The dark glasses of the person freezing over but the glare from the light snow blinding, feet numbing, having to get back to home – then listening to the radio, people to be in from the freezing, children not to be going out to schools.

A woman reading on the radio, and then in the great heat she and a man bicycling by the corn fields a dark sky that seems to be a tornado near where they’d come from, where they’re living. Bicycling back because of that, sweating in the heat. A dog chasing them up the road. The siren of the tornado warning whined. At night a strand of lightning singes the building, there in bed in the dark. Turn on the radio to hear which has just been blasted back on, after going off.*

There is a footnote attached to that asterisk which reads “See Jerry Ratch, Plein-Air, for fields with crows in them.”

It is not that Scalapino is being obfuscatory or in any way “difficult” in this passage from The Return of Painting, even as her unnamed but gendered characters go from hypothermia to extreme heat within the course of two paragraphs, only one sentence of which follows the normative subject → predicate model: The siren of the tornado warning whined. But normative grammar would suggest that there in bed in the dark refers back either to building or a strand of lightning, and yet no reader I can imagine will be confused by that. Because it’s not about building transparent (or even elegant) grammatical architecture, the transparent prose of a Twain or Bellow, but of representing the shape of time & of experience. Elsewhere, in a piece entitled “’Thinking Serially,’ in For Love, Words and Pieces,” Scalapino writes

Creeley’s use of autobiographical reference, is following the movement of itself in time (watching the mind) – rather than the expression of ‘creation’ of a personality. Its mirroring of its own mind formation and its race to out-run that as ‘serial thinking’ is not static personality creation because it is only that movement.

This internally produced ‘argument’ (the mind watching itself and trying to outrace its own closure, as a ‘particular’ form in this time) rather than being a trap that ultimately enshrines the self, are pieces in the collection of writing which by the very fact of occurring as ‘merely’ components repeating a conflict, as it shows up, without essential change, are not ‘that’ (fixed) psychology.

Nearly 30 years after I pulled together that initial list, there’s nothing particularly new about the new sentence. Like the title of the talk itself, torque is a term that has had something of a career of its own. But given the degree to which I was appropriating a term from a radically different discourse, the idea that it has been in any way useful to anybody subsequently strikes me as fortuitous in the extreme. Mike Hauser’s initial question, which prompted Kasey Mohammad’s response, which in turn provoked this note, isn’t at all off the mark. The suggestiveness of the thing has been far more powerful than the thing itself. And Kasey’s attempt at a definition is about 90 percent on target.

A couple of addenda are worth noting. One is that I never intended to suggest that any particular sentence or piece of writing needed to satisfy all eight points of that list to qualify as a “new sentence,” only that these are some of the features one can anticipate finding there. The excerpt from The Return of Painting demonstrates an instance in which torque pretty much is the only element from that list that’s active there, largely because Leslie is pursuing a different set of interests in that piece. I do know that when I wrote that list, it was very much “top down,” in that the first item – The paragraph organizes the sentences – is by far the most important. So there was (is?) a hierarchy of formal interests I was noticing in the writing being done at that moment in the late 1970s.

A second is that torque, as such, has generally become less important among younger poets. To the great detriment to their poetry. I can’t really think of anybody under the age of, say, 40, whose work is as syntactically marked as distinct as that of Scalapino, Coolidge or Seaton – their writing is unmistakable. In a sense, the disruptiveness that one senses around such work has continued – one sees it in both visual & conceptual poetics. One sees it in flarf, which loves to foreground its seams, or in a work like Nick Thurston’s Reading the Remove of Literature, just out from Information as Material, a personally annotated & highlighted edition of Maurice Blanchot’s L’Espace littéraire in which every word of Blanchot’s master text has been erased. But this is disruption not at the moment of a syntactic turn, but merely at the level of the text as idea. It is not too much to suggest that, in this sense, torque largely has been marginalized. Why, precisely, and what that means are questions we (I) need to be asking now.