Thursday, March 19, 2009

Janet Holmes

A couple of the books that have come across my desk recently have gotten me thinking. One is Jared Hayes’ RecollecTed / CaGeD, printed in a limited special edition for the 101st reading of the Spare Room series in Portland, Oregon. (You can read the CaGeD part of this book by downloading this PDF file from the folks at Dusie.) The other is by Janet Holmes & published by Shearsman, one of the very best presses in all of the U.K., entitled THE MS OF M Y KIN, or perhaps THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON.

Hayes’ book takes the Cagean acrostic poem through some texts, spelling out on the verso face Ted Berrigan (hence the Ted) and on the recto John Cage John Cage. Each page is sliced into thirds, so that you can combine them at random to generate even more texts, sort of a la Raymond Queneau’s 100,000,000,000,000 Sonnets. This works better in theory than in the sewn fine press binding of the Livestock Edition of the work. Each page of the CaGeD portion begins with the same first line: Just as it is, with the J in boldface so as to avoid subtlety. But the other lines differ, as do all of the lines I believe on the Berrigan side of the page.

Holmes’ book processes Dickinson’s poems of 1861 & ’62 via erasure, just as Ronald Johnson did when he turned Paradise Lost into Radi Os, a text I first saw in Johnson’s Sacramento Street home in San Francisco in 1973.

Both books are well conceived, well executed and, as book objects, delights to have & to hold. But I’m wondering if these projects carry forward in the same innovative spirit as the works that initially inspired them, or perhaps represent something profoundly different altogether.

Let me put this a different way. Is it possible, 30,.40, 50 years post facto to genuinely replicate innovative processes so profound that they virtually identified with their inventors. Could you, in your 37th year, write a work of 37 paragraphs, each with 37 sentences, with a gentle dose of reiteration and call this project My Life, even if it were your life entirely that was being portrayed? Contrasted with Lyn Hejinian’s project of 1978, would this be the “same” or “different”? And what would be its value? Even if, just for hypotheticals, you did it in some way “better,” more lyrical, more insightful, more profound? Would any other person, at least beyond your significant other & any offspring you might have, ever have reason to read this?

Which is to say that I’m not convinced that we need to have an “erased” edition of every major work of the English language, even tho I’m quite willing to concede that Holmes has done a fine version with this text. After all, you could take these same materials and just as readily end up with something entitled THE PO   OF Y    SON. Do we really need EAVES OF ASS or OWL or any of the other “edited” masterworks that must surely be in the offing? What is the value of a gesture when taken out of context?

Both of these projects are complicated by the fact that their original templates were themselves acts of literary recycling, Johnson of Milton, Cage of Joyce. (And the allusion to Berrigan is itself to the recombinatory aspects of The Sonnets, a series full of such recycling.) So a certain amount of literary tourism seems baked into these processes at the outset. What made Jackson Mac Low’s early work in similar veins – viz. Stanzas for Iris Lezak – so revolutionary weren’t just his use of found materials, but his incorporation of profoundly un- or even anti-literary source materials into poetry. Not so Cage & Johnson. Mac Low expanded the reach of literature, as such, where Cage & Johnson did not, tho you could argue certainly that they made what already was perceivable as literary even more rich & dense.

This is of course a problem for all literature. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands (if you follow Seth Abramson’s math) of young poets around Manhattan who gain permission for their free verse lyrics from reading Frank O’Hara, a man who has been dead for 43 years & been codified to the point he pops up as a prop in TV shows – that is inherently antithetical to what O’Hara himself actually did, which was to speak in new & different ways that made even William Carlos Williams appear arch & formal. One can find multiple instances of language poets using fixed-word-counts per line (Bob Perelman six, Lyn Hejinian three, me five), a device that I believe we would all trace back to Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-22 & -23. If that is not recycling in the same way, why not? What are sonnets or haiku but the deepest sort of reiteration?

So I find myself ill-at-ease with these two books that I really want to like, and – worse yet, from my perspective – find that probing this a little only expands the problem one-hundredfold. I think we very seldom acknowledge just how little of literature is truly new. Which is why when something does pop up that seems genuinely to expand the field of writing – flarf is the obvious case in point – it spreads like wildfire. What flarf does is take materials from the “real world” & present them in ways that are garishly anti-literary as literature. The controversial process of Google-sculpting is a minor (indeed minuscule) aspect of flarf compared with its critique of The Literary. Thus the obvious flarf companion to Holmes’ work would be Mike Magee’s My Angie Dickinson, in which the form of Dickinson’s poems have been used as empty vessels for language about the Hollywood actress & her various film projects, such as:


Two teenage daughters – bootleg –
on a merry chase
Concept and Controversy
”Nixon’s Great Diamond Heist” –

Flattering – as Utah
Directed episodes –
like a beaver-tailed Erik Estrada
”in” – a slinky silver dress

Hyper-romantic composers
as the San Diego Zoo –
meet a “woman” – closer to
his unhappy – nephew –

The one thing Magee does not use is the very center of Holmes own approach: Dickinson’s language. Contrast this with Holmes’ version of “1862.22 (354-359)” (it appears on pages 86-9 of Holmes’ book). What is absent from Holmes aired-out version is precisely what is retained in Magee’s: Dickinson’s incredible sense of compression. Magee reduces Dickinson to coiled compactness, almost pure torque. Holmes gives us wisps of vocabulary, an aesthetic experience almost antithetical to Dickinson. Both pieces end on a consciously troubling note – the unhappy dash nephew in Magee, “He // looked        frightened // Like one in danger” in Holmes – but the cognitive dissonance is rather dissipated in all that space in Kin, where its redoubled by the dash in Angie. Which, we could ask, is the truer depiction of the relevance of the Dickinsonian moment to the 21st century?

So is Holmes’ book really “about” Dickinson in the same way Johnson’s was “about” Milton? Or is it, in fact, about Johnson, a completely different source? Or for that matter both? If Hayes’ project strikes me as ultimately aimed at some version of Java or Flash online, isn’t Holmes’ work here really a part of Ronald Johnson studies, where it sits as a complex critique? (One could argue, I think, without too much difficulty that Holmes has taken greater care with her erasures than Johnson did with his.) In this sense Holmes’ use of Dickinson here parallels more exactly the Google sculpting of references to Police Woman in Magee.

Which gets me back to that problem of value. I’ve argued before that the history of literature is the history of change in literature & that “doing something best” really counts for very little. Here’s a real test. If it is Johnson’s Radi Os we turn to in 20 or 50 years, it won’t be because he did it best, but rather because he was the pioneer who made this new territory habitable. In some sense, Holmes’ Dickinson represents a different stage: when the territory becomes settled, when towns & farms take root. It represents change, but not in the same way.