Thursday, September 21, 2017

Joel Oppenheimer

MEANING AND METHOD


Among poets associated with Black Mountain College, Joel Oppenheimer is especially plain-spoken. Judging from his attention to the details of ordinary life, he seems to have learned more from Williams than from Olson; but like Creeley, he has assiduously applied the law of the line to experience, moving from one perception to the next, “instanter” (c.f. “Projective Verse”. Shortly before his death, Oppenheimer composed a small book of poems, Why Not. In the preface he writes, "i meant for these poems to mean things"—an apparently straight­forward request. I'll translate (with some irony). He wants us to believe that the poem participates in a species of perception that constitutes its occasion. At least he wants us to accept something of this sort before embarking on further interpretations. Not much to ask you might think, but for many, if not most readers, meaning follows upon perception and is not simultaneous with it. Then there is also the likelihood that meaning will complicate perception ..

1)


For meaning to operate as immediately as Oppenheimer would have it, the eyes must be blinkered to linguistic or poetic analysis. Perception of language “bits” in the stream of the line or the sentence, effectively blocks perception of the flow. This is William James' vocabulary from his "The Stream of Thought"—where he writes, "Consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up in bits; it flows" (240)—and I use "flow" to refer to large overarching or underlying currents that propel a reader through a reading of a work. "Rhythm" or "tempo" might measure of "flow." "Intention" or "meaning" might indicate the direction of "flow." For instance when I look at a score, it's difficult for me to get all those bits I see on the lines to fit a rhythm. I don't have the training or the discipline. That language is not automatic for me, and I do better "out loud" if I hear a song first. Reading an unfamiliar language, one stumbles into similar uncertainties; and that may be interesting in its own way. I take this to be the object of Pound's experiments with Propertius, readings that question the concept of the natural phrase.
Usually when reading we pay little attention to those delimited packets of information with which as children most of us struggled. Here is one source for a nostalgia for orality in literature. Nonetheless, an analysis of the oral bits that compose the verbal stream is more difficult than a study of similar bits visually registered on a page. Sounds travel in envelopes of continuously modulating sine waves, lacking sharply demarcated boundaries. Perhaps poets were among the first to work out a way to scan a language, filtering sound through a grid of distinctive features. Nothing about language, it would appear is easy or natural in and of itself. Children learn the ropes experientially; or the infant mind might be wired so as to respond intuitively. In either case the form a language takes is a difficult invention in its own right.
Oppenheimer's strategy (or discipline) exemplifies an effort to simplify. He minimizes references to anything other than the "things" of his poem. Line breaks appear at first glance to be simply an aid to breathing or speaking. There are few arresting bits of information. As a result, the texts support a perception that meaning informs each part, gathering force as the poem spreads out. Consider this small poem:                                        
THE LADY
in the dream
she comes to me clothed
and we talk

now i remember


when we met
her nipples
at the fabric
of her blouse

later later
after the dream
she is smaller
plainer
 the dream
is still strong

One of the "things" a poem does is to color perception variously, here with a slightly exaggerated, but drowsy quality of arousal. The poem vitiates any difference between the things of perception and mode or mood. As I look at the devices used in the poem, I am tempted to conclude that it's made of stuff too vague to have much meaning in and of itself —some talking, a blouse, a woman. Meaning lies in the quality of perception, not in an inventory of details. I also notice at least seven references to time in these thirteen short lines. Apparently the "transitional bits" count for as much as the "substantive" bits (another distinction made by William James). So in one sense the poem is a highly determined structure. The discipline reading requires might mean tuning in to the right channel; and the poet's job, as Oppenheimer understands it, is to send a clear signal, free of noise.


In this poem, "now", "later', and "still" are aspects of a more complicated development than at first seemed evident. At the first reading, they seemed to mark stages in the development of the poet's thought. Re-reading, I'm unsure. Is "now" simultaneous with "still?" Does "now" mean "later" in the sense of "after the dream" There is only one shift in time marked by verb tenses. Perhaps these adverbs do not mark stages at all, but degrees of intensity. The lines "later later / after the dream" are particularly difficult for me to read aloud; and I have chosen not to end stop the first line. That would give it a purely (impurely) rhetorical force: "later! later!"—a peak before the deflation of expectations. So I read: "later [that is "later on" or] / after the dream"—as a clarification of the meaning. Finally, curiously, the waking perception, "smaller / plainer" marks the poet's bemusement. My reading varies not that much from the facts of the surface of the poem. I also suppress some of my prejudices, my hang ups. To perceive is to see through—a blouse or a dream. The overarching rhythm of the poem is physical, similar to the transformation produced by detumescence. But for all this, the poem isn't about perception. It is a perception of some quality that is almost sweetly commonplace. It is a measured perception both in its semantic and its prosodic structures.

2)
Now I ask, does perception at the level of unmediated response constitute meaning? Isn't "meaning" something that you take away from the poem, something that it gives off? In a projective poetics or poetics of perception as theorized by Charles Olson (the radical pragmatism of James serving as precedent), the first premise is that consciousness is continuous with itself. It flows, perhaps in fits and starts, but not even a thunderclap turns the mind off. It's when you divert the flow of perception in order to draw a conclusion that you separate yourself from the processes that produce meaning. Apparently, there's a set of meanings that you carry with you, as in the case of Olson's man who carried his house on his head, and a set of afterthoughts, abstract digests, or talismans associated with the baggage of daily life.


In Oppenheimer's poem the adverbs mark an expanding consciousness, as opposed to gaps in perception (such "gaps" might serve alter the flow, introducing a tumbling, cascade effect). If the flow of perception is to roll over the reader in the form of so many advancing waves, howeverso gently, might that not impose a degree of passivity, disabling the reader's ability to discriminate? In other words, the physical presence of a speaker, either "in" or "behind" the words may give a feeling of some security, especially if the voice is friendly—it may disarm. Much depends on how presence is read, as a figure of persuasive force or as a fact of the poem. Presence provides a measure of the quality of perception—a projection that in Olson's insistence carries an ethical or moral imperative to be identified with sincerity. The emotions, moving forces that govern heart and lungs, inform the integrity of utterance. The reader, if only intuitively, as in a conversation, assigns attributes such as openness (or contrariwise a desire to intimidate or confuse) to the voice heard in the work. Oppenheimer's short poem might then be asking the reader to share his sense of a particular moment. An aggressive deconstruction might characterize that moment as another instance of the man undressing a woman, a phallocentric fantasy (and it is), but that would deprive the language of those meanings related to its occasion. The poet has risked a gesture that is open to both criticism and understanding.


Nonetheless, as power often hides its purpose, the "serious reader" may have cause for misgivings concerning the intentions (the meanings or design) of any and all texts—a spiritual crisis that might be called postmodern-ism. In this century, poetic integrity has frequently required the deployment of alienation effects, of strategies designed to "deautomatize" perception. In that tradition, the "New Sentence," theorized by Ron Silliman, shifts from level to level of "envisagement" or contextual framing, disjointing grammatical expectations and compelling the reader to engage semantic elements without mediation. The text becomes a matrix, supporting some readings and not others. The operation of what Silliman calls the "Parsimony Principle" assures a degree of coherence or "unitary signification."
Whenever it is possible to integrate two separate elements into a single larger element by imagining them as sharing a single common participant, the mind will do so. (The New Sentence 120)

Silliman's "Migratory Meaning," an essay republished in The New Sentence, was written in the interest of addressing "the lack of a shared vocabulary with which to speak and think of the poem as we find it, circa 1982"—an urgency that persists circa 2007. Silliman attempts to demonstrate the futility underlying such commonly heard appreciative comments as "beyond the meaning of words." His purpose seems to rhyme with Oppenheimer's, who, in the preface to Why Not, castigates the reader who "has been educated to believe that 'it means whatever i want it to mean.'"
A workable envisagement will prove in some sense congruent with the author's conception of the work. Silliman cites three readings made by his students of these lines from Rae Armentrout's "Grace," a poem that violates normative expectations for clarity:
a spring there
where his entry must be made

signals him on



The students successfully created narrative scenarios, providing coherence, and one paralleled Armentrout's "own authorial envisagement which was that of vaginal lubrication" —according to Silliman (114). Access to this information probably makes these lines more transparent than intended. In her poem she now appears every bit as exposed as Oppenheimer does in his. Yet Armentrout seems uninterested in perception in Oppenheimer's sense. She objectifies her body, seeing it here from a male perspective, almost as though not present to what is happening to her (and this suggestion in itself provides another level of envisagement). Her language deconstructs presence; challenges standard sensibilities. Estrangement demands envisagement.
Reading closely is difficult, more so when the material touches on subjects that are taboo to some sensibilities. A highly determined structure of language jostles against the constraints represented by that structure. Social and personal forces that impinge upon the production of measure, situate the reader and poet in an exposed, sometimes uncomfortable position; the reader copes by producing meanings. Envisagement is crucial to the frame semantics of Charles Fillmore (Silliman's source) and appears to be a fundamental linguistic principle. The process is both cumulative and synthetic. In the case of the selection from Armentrout's poem, the first two lines add up to a sum that will vary with each reader. The third line produces a transformation of the reader's envisagement and so forth. The result is not necessarily an unwavering progress in a single direction. The engagement required is participatory.
My examples represent related extremes, one a projective poetics of perception, the founding document being Charles Olson's "Projective Verse" (Poetry New York, 1950); the other often called "language poetry." In Olson's poetics, the poem is a screen or an integument upon which the senses play; form becomes a rebus, reflecting intensities and qualities of emotion along a subjective axis of "internal necessity" (similar to that theorized by Wassily Kandinsky), but cleansed of "lyric interference." Reading produces a feeling of corresponding intensities. In Silliman's poetics, language is prior to individual sense perception in all its forms. Meaning is an effect of language, not perception. The locus of correspondence occurs at the level of envisagement, in an inter-space where both reader and text exist as articulated presences, not in a transcendent elsewhere barely shadowed by the page.


In Olson's case, his push to detect an underlying order among a multiplicity of interacting forces, required him to use increasingly fragmented forms of annotation. Language poetry (influenced in this respect by the example of Gertrude Stein) invokes—one might almost say— interrogates normative syntax, unmooring meaning from its fixed or conventional forms. Here, language may be likened to an electronic pulse, and as with a digital synthesizer, the bits define the measure. Sound or meaning becomes a function of structure, not content (and not an extension of content). The choice of instruments seems crucial: for Silliman, an electronic synthesizer, for Oppenheimer a boogie played on an acoustic guitar, or even its analog, the human throat. The field of action that is the poem is finally too rich, too highly determined to accommodate this analogy. Semantic and acoustic overlays collide, the dissonances carefully adjusted to one another.

3)


In Total Syntax, Barrett Watten interrogates "the emotive voice, the 'I' [that in Olson] is perceptible as a person behind the words" (123). A saturation of narrative by an "excess of signification" results in a break down of the sentence in favor of the phrase (129). Disruptions and refusals of completion create "a linguistic present" of a compelling order. "Olson's paternalistic psychology, and his manipulation by means of physical presence and almost a wall of sound, is a matter of some conflict in itself. Only later do the political consequences of the romantic position appear, insisting on the advantage of its defects [my italics] in the precedence of language over self. And from that point one can enter the work." (129-130). By means of a complex double-move, Watten both censures and praises Olson's excesses, finding finally a precedent for the therapeutic value of a language-based poetics. In turn, I am tempted to psychologize Watten's need to testify, but we have before us something more crucial than reaction formations and a generational struggle. Presence is an aspect of language that saturates the work. Olson in his understanding of "negative capability" (cf. Special View of History 15-16 and Selected Writings 46) perhaps anticipates Watten's difficulty. Uncertainties, including "defects," are both source and subject, a nexus that is productive of the work. In "Human Universe," Olson asks, "who can extricate language from action?" (Selected Writings 54). His strategy is to submerge the ego in myth or history, sometimes allowing it to penetrate the surface in a lumbering and unskilled urgency. There is an objection in Watten to Olson's push, as if the reader might feel threatened by the weight of that "wall of sound" and prefer a more neutral, less compelling tone. Although he objects to Olson's psychology, Watten does not and cannot proscribe the presence of the self in the text. This presence always carries an emotional force. Irrational moments in Watten’s highly conceptual poetry carry precisely such a presence. [I will provide an example or cut this last sentence].


Ron Silliman's Paradise seems an appropriate place to look for textual strategies with reference to this problematic "I" or self, whether “lyrical” or simply intrusive. In Paradise I find observations rendered with a keenness that matches my deepest personal memories, "Or that washing machine with a wringer on it would spot oil on the linoleum floor" (19). But the poem also cautions the reader: such perceptions (and there are many of them), "These are not facts" (40). I also find comments on the current state of affairs, "Freedom is access to two malls" (54). A radical pragmatism with respect to language, "Language cannot tell the truth" (50), informs perception: "Length of sentence. No need to wake the block up. By adding a trim, painters reframe the house" (50). The image creates an analogy of insubstantiality between syntax and paint; and it seems to work after the fashion of an ideogram. The physical presence, the "I" or observer behind the words, often takes a self-conscious form, "No eyes more foreign than those in the mirror" (37). Sometimes the language violates the reader's space, "What I wish to say, dear reader, take off your blouse" (45). For Silliman, at least as I read Paradise, the space between sentences is an analog of the space between the writer and the reader. Entry into the poem erases boundaries (and maybe Watten's point is that Olson can seem unforgiving of his readers’ boundaries).
Reading Silliman, ordinary language seems on the verge of dematerializing, as though there were no longer a subject. His language is insistently a form of address. Almost jabs, phrases impinge upon the reader, pointing repeatedly, continually shifting direction, calling forth a subject that must be understood ultimately as the reader. Silliman's sense of language might serve to enable, but it also questions the possibility of a language community such as Stanley Cavell proposes when he describes the importance of "voice".
To speak for oneself politically is to speak for the others with whom you consent to associate, and it is to consent to be spoken for by them--not as a parent speaks for you, i.e., instead of you, but as some one in mutuality speaks for you, i.e., speaks your mind. ... To speak for yourself then means risking the rebuff ... and it means risking having to rebuff ... . (27-28)

Watten and Silliman, both in their poetry and in their theoretical writings, seek to clarify our collective sense of what writing does. In choosing the multi-voiced synthesizer as instrument for poetic composition, they situate risk at the level of subverting generic expectations concerning language and meaning. Like Cavell they site the source of community in language, but claim that for practical purposes that the language is broke, indeed bankrupt.


In a sense Silliman's language pushes action off on the reader, who as collaborator, is swept along as the frames change, but feels at a distance from the "things" of the poem or its occasion. References to body-building in Paradise reenforce my reading. Individual exercise programs conform to generic expectations that like language in its current forms, constrain rather than empower. Indeed, Silliman seems to identify with body builders precisely because, after a self-reflexive fashion, he recognizes the practical limitations of self-help regimens including his own language exercises—as though pursuit of the figure disfigured, desire to transform deformed. I quote again from Paradise, "The small parade turned out to be some sort of Portuguese holiday celebration, one high school band and four clusters of costumed marchers, moving slowly up what had once been the mainstreet, its sidewalks empty" (38). Here, Silliman deflects the reader's attention away from the content: a token and politically pathetic resistance to the reality of social homogenization in America. Instead he invokes the social fact that main street lacks integrity with respect to the suburbs of apple pie and the American dream. His focus falls on the structural inversion of function with respect to street and sidewalk, finding in the literal facts of the situation a semantic shift that has eroded metaphors for political empowerment like "taking to the streets." As these streets may well be those of Gloucester, the passage provides a telling instance of a difference. Silliman's desire to empower the reader's imagination by means of providing a structural frame here contrasts with Olson's expressed desire to move the reader to action by presenting facts as meaningful and consequential with respect to historical processes.


4)
Don Byrd's "Language Poetry, 1971‑86" is an attempt to address what he considers "a troubling theoretical confusion and rift in serious American poetry at this time." Confusion does exist both as to differences of method and the continuities that link projective poetics and language poetry. Byrd's argument is cast as an opposition between "structural" and "material" aspects of language. His thoughts, like Watten's or Silliman's reflect a reading of Olson. The way Byrd puts it, some language poetry is a "grammatical poetry" that focuses on method and "draw[s] attention back from meaning to the mechanism of production." A second poetry, adhering more closely to Olson's methods, needs to be distinguished from the first. It "insists on the meaningful priority of the concrete world." For this poetry the result of experiment is that "the physicality of language as a measure of the concrete world is restored." For the grammarians language, as has been noted, is prior to and enables perception. I am tempted to ascribe to Byrd's analysis, but cannot do so because it seems evident to me that questions of semantic force are crucial for a grammatical poetry. Envisagement, for instance, is crucial to Silliman's poetics, and his poetry is no less physical than Olson's. To suggest that meaning is immanent in the concrete particulars of experience, as Byrd does, is to ignore the facts of language that make it possible to write a poetry in which the problematic "I" risks a claim with respect to particular situations.


I have tried to suggest that the "grammatical" and the "material" stances are not antithetical. Instead in a truly "open" poetry, the measure arises as a result of a fusion of language and perception. When Olson writes in "the conventions which logic has forced on syntax must be broken open," his purpose is to enhance perception, "the acting on you of the line." As to language, he continues, "But an analysis of how far a new poet can stretch the very conventions on which communication by language rests, is too big for these notes, which are meant, I hope it is obvious, merely to get things started" (21). Silliman and Watten in turn have deliberated upon those conventions, picking up the thread that Olson let drop here. Olson’s prosody maps those affects that can be attributed to attention and duration. Language poets, in different ways, add semantic shifts or toques to the complex materiality of the text.


Too often, too much of modern poetry serves to confirm a sense of powerlessness, recounting the bad bargains made in the name of keeping up with appearances in the competition for acknowledgement. The language agents that monitor the marketplace have little truck with meaning. Their goal is to preserve market share. A pragmatic response to such pathos is that language constructs reality. My purpose has been to define a meeting ground where different strategies for poetry can meet. For a poem to generate measured responses, a presence must be tangible in the poem. Further, the poem must produce an answering presence in the person of the reader. In the formula, "i meant for these poems to mean things", the presence of an ego or "voice"—even the modest voice represented by the small "i"—represents a claim of pertinence. Likewise, near the end of Paradise, Silliman writes "A pen just to chew on" (63). Both language and the desire for language invest the phrase with meaning. Each poet seeks to share a perception with the reader, how it was that the poet came to be aware of such and such. Like perception and language, meaning and method appear to be linked, not separable agencies.






Works discussed:
Byrd, Don. "Language Poetry, 1971-86." Sulfur 20: 1987.
Cavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason. NY: OUP, 1982.
James, William. Principles of Psychology. 2 vol. 1890. NY: Dover, 1950.
Olson, Charles. Selected Writings. ed Robert Creeley. NY: New Directions, 1966.
-----. The Special View of History. Berkeley: Oyez, 1970.
Oppenheimer, Joel. Why Not. Fredonia: White Pine, 1987.
Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. NY: Roof, 1987.
Silliman, Ron. Paradise. Providence: Burning Deck, 1985.

Watten, Barrett. Total Syntax. Carbondale: University of Southern Illinois Press, 1985.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Contradictory sentences

CONTRADICTORY SENTENCES form series
of indeterminate length. Energy
arises in bending the line. Abrupt
carriage returns. Word substitutions.
Staging motivates scaled unfoldings.
“When you look at / the fieldwork, you see
the problem of agency supported by
/ the sophistication of upward mobility
… A contrapuntal / structure moves among
several different lives.” A cue to the method
of writing. The world order under capitalism.
The method generates incongruities
in the field of action. Meaning is in play,
“an abyss of crop-duster dictums” writes
Andrew Levy, Artifice in the Calm Damages,
the chapbook from which I have been quoting.
He continues “revolutionaries / via minor routes,
filth, blood, and noise.” His text, in the key of anarchy,
no newly born utopia looms on the far horizon
of destruction. Alice Notley, in turn, writes,
in the key of really pissed off. “Most of us
are slaves, largely by consent. Or / you could say
we’re brainwashed.” She’s sardonic.
“I work  / in a shelter for battered women.
I submitted to / a pharaonic circumcision.”
Facing the abyss of embodied affect,
paralyzed, I see a cat sprawled under the clothes tree.
Juan Goytisolo muere en Marrakech,
city of highlife nightmare, jùjú music,
Djemaa el fna, central square of dance parties
and all night food stalls, estranged from myself,
grizzled old man in a brilliant Berber jacket.
Goytisolo sat with his back to the wall. Mint tea.
a notebook for recording phrases from an Arabic
that has no alphabet, seeking to better understand
those with whom he shared his exile,
three adopted children and their mother.
The tide that surrounds us grows impatient
with lame-foot measures. He chose
the Atlantic shore at Larache for his internment.
He eschewed literary prizes. From the need
to educate his children, he accepted the Cervantes,
crippled as he was and unable to stand on his legs.
Now he lies with Jean Genet as he had wanted.

Exile is central to my own disposition. Abjection,
docility and submissiveness, threaded as they are
with anger, inform the only poetry any of us write.
Remember Alice’s magic! Is it possible
to be an American in an age of deception?
That’s motive for exile in hers, in my case.
In Andrew’s? what does he do? He is pushed
toward the book. He begins with a conclusion,
“Nothing is in here.” Title and first line
of an earlier composition. By that he means
all that once had embodied joy is now absent.
Such desolation! Humor doesn’t help.
“The vile stench makes sunbathing impossible
and swimming / through the slime … the tiny
trapped sea creatures living inside perish
/ when the algae hit the beach, creating
a putrid sulfurous stench.” Is there a resolution
to “The chaos of Dreaming Life” where poetry
 is wed with pain? Alice writes, “I wish
you’d waterboard me. Make my heart crash.
We’re immortal. It hurt my throat. What a bunch
of liars they are.” She has no interest “in being myself.
I just am.” She forces the poet’s hand, “There’s
nothing here now, there is only me.” She has
no answer to hovering incompleteness, “It isn’t
a good price that you pay for writing a poem.”

Everyone I know has money for their daily needs.
Even more than they know. To them, within the confines
of their reality, there’s no imaginable alternative
to their security and comfort. This insight
came to me during a heatwave. Even for my kids,
there’s nothing to be done but to call the installer.
“I tried to learn how to be a person,” Alice wrote.
“In death we speak, in dreams we speak, / and
in the immaterial past and future our vocal cords
are fast as birds.” She clutches a grail of light
to her chest and gives it to a child. So too thought
those in honor of Goytisolo as his bark rode the waves.
He no longer had words for his life. Andrew concludes,
“These are my words. Nobody asked me to write them.”
As to the riddle of this essay-poem, he suggests,
“You could identify with the poor.” That’s
the key of Juan’s attempt to decode
the analphabetism of the crowded square.

Cited texts:
Andre Levy, Artifice in the Calm Damages (Victoria TX: Chax, 2017).
Andrew Levy, Nothing in Here (NY: Eoagh, 2011).
Alice Notley, Certain Magical Acts (NY: Penguin, 2016).



Donald Wellman
August 20, 2017



Sunday, April 9, 2017

Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott, 1930- 2017
Of how many can it be said that he or she broke ground
and what does it signify? A metaphor
drawn from the ceremonies of construction
or is something more subtle and enduring intended
as in breaking bread during the vernal equinox?
I mourn the death of a poet whose smile bespoke
generations of gentleness, reaching back through slavery
to the shores of Africa. His smile wrinkled
with watching the waves merge with the sand
and the horizon meld with the sea.
The soft gray hair of his face
signified warmth and love, not sarcasm.
On the roof of a church in the village where I lived,
the American flag was stretched like a target
for aerial bombardment in order to indict
the colonialism of the Vietnam era.
Time is a bleached rag on the clothesline of history.



“That sail which leans on light,” six monosyllabic syllables register a world as percept and as gnomon in the tides of time.


Donald Wellman



Monday, March 20, 2017

What is Philosopy

The expressed, it is claimed, resides solely in the expression – a frightened face like that of a young girl who has heard a bunny rabbit scream. Implied is a world and conceptual person who is an expression of that world. Within the dusty spaces of the barn there is a cage made of slats and wire. There is straw and feeding dishes. A bottle from which water may be siphoned. The bunnies are Plato and Descartes. Melville tried this trick! For one there is a time before time began; for the other time and the cogito are coterminous. For him, there is no before. For the girl with the frightened face, there is only a moment detached from time or history, a “meanwhile.” “The concept is real without being actual” (What Is Philosophy 22). The same is true of the scream, be it hers or Edvard Munch’s. Like Munch art finds its source in a fascination with a prepubescent girl who exists at a limit where the state of innocence can no longer be said to exist, except as a concept or sensation. A plane of immanence has intersected with a plane of composition. Both exist in a chaos of intersections which is the always embryonic human brain. With old age I weary.

See Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy (NY: Columbia, 1993), cited as WIP.

A “meanwhile” according to Deleuze and Guattari, is neither a part of time nor as aspect of the eternal. It exists as a form of becoming. It may be similar to liminality or a threshold experience. The virtual is actualized during such meanwhiles. Is this a paradigm for the actualization of the sacred? “All meanwhiles are superimposed on one another, whereas times succeed one another” (158). A meanwhile is a concept that philosophers produce. In the visual arts and poetry, planes, stacked on top of one another, with variations in degree over overlap, construct the vertical dimensions of a poem that might otherwise be understood as serial in nature, functioning as montage does but without the depth wherein beauty often lies. Beauty is immanent to this concept of the poem. Deleuze and Guattari define “beauty” as “sensation.” They conclude this section of What is Philosophy, subtitled, “Philosophy, Science, Logic, and Art, with this remark, “Philosophy is always meanwhile” (159). Visualize the interface between planes in the work of Pound or Schendel as spatial approximations of the concept of “meanwhile.” Consider what Luce Irigary meant when she wrote, “We need to proceed in such a way that linear reading is no longer possible (80).

See “The Poverty of Psychoanalysis” in The Irigaray Reader, Margaret Whitford, ed. (Oxforf: Basil Blackwell, 1991) 79-104.

In WIP, Deleuze and Guattari also write, “Sensation is not realized in the material without the material passing completely into the sensation, into the percept or affect. All the material becomes expressive” (167).

There’s a leaden feeling to the blue sky, arctic air aloft. The trees have not yet imagined their leaves, “Conceptual becoming is heterogeneity grasped in an absolute form; sensory becoming is otherness caught in a matter of expression” (177). My lines form planes on which otherness may locate itself as if it were a creature, as if it were folds in brain matter. That materials of different orders form the rooms of a house through which the cosmos is able to articulate itself, is this not “conceptual becoming” or is my world never void of sensation and the affects that perception generates? I am an empty jar in which electrolytes swim. I am Matisse’s gold fish in a vase of blue water. My memories of a poet whose hand I once held in mine are not memories of his presence so much as percepts of his giftedness. I’ll continue reading.

Composition is where the horizontal or serial embrace, enclose, or is penetrated by the vertical, like a puncture that inflates and conflates primordial density. In some versions a hand like that of the ur-father, Urizen, with his golden compass reaches down from the clouds; in other versions the roiling seas are more black because of the moonlight than they otherwise would have been. Pierre Boulez wrote (as if he were decoding desire, “to plot a transversal , irreducible to both the harmonic vertical and melodic horizontal, that involves sonorous blocs of variable individuation but that also opens them up or splits them in a space-time that determines their density and their course over the plane” (WIP 191).

Art, science, and philosophy are the three daughters of chaos. Is this sentence, implying as it does a radical difference between the chaotic and the chaoid, a concept? Has his daughter taken Walcott to a plane of immanence?


The three planes may interfere with one another in the brain and form a shadow. The planes are the plane of immanence of philosophy, the plane of composition of art, and the plane of reference or coordination of science. “Nonphilosophy I found where the plane confronts chaos. … Planes are no longer distinct in relation to the chaos into which the brain plunges.” A people to come are extracted from such shadows. Didn’t I once edit a journal called chaos.

Donald Wellman


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Current Goals



I am a poet who reads. I am now making the final edits of my manuscript Expressivity in Modern Poetry. Central to this volume is a poetics in which normative notions of the real are challenged and virtual or immanent planes of experience are inscribed. For these purposes language has use value. Sometimes that value lies solely in the domain of prosody, a musical scansion unique to each line and the energies that pass through the poem. The condition of a sustained and articulated flow is transcendent (not transcendental) and expressive of an immanence that enables the perception of form or rhythm, fleeting though it maybe, if only for a heartbeat. This is the poetics I learned from poets like Ezra Pound, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. Though that learning be but a ghost of their physical presence or voice, it is a poetics that I continue to develop through the translation of poetry from several languages and from writing on the topics presented in these two volumes.

The first of three sections, is a discussion of the mechanics of modernism in the arts. Section two, Jarring Effects: Charles Olson and The Poetics of Incommensurable Realities, engages both the topic of interculturality and the topic of expressivity. My intention is to situate Olson in the forefront of American poets who have engaged multiple cultures, decentering the relationship between America and Europe, and folding into the poetic fabric, archaic, indigenous, and philosophical materials derived from the history of science, psychology, linguistics and metaphysics. My goal is to testify to the power of his method and its influence both on the work of his peers and on the work of a large number contemporary poets.

The third section, Baroque Threads, explores those forms of interculturality that are a distinctive aspect of both North American and Latin American poetry. The underpinnings of my explorations are necessarily multicultural. From this vantage point I address the poetry of  William Carlos Williams, and Langston Hughes, as well as that of Aimé Césaire, Nicolás Guillén, and Lezama Lima, as well as works by the visual artist Ana Mendieta, and contemporary poets associated with both language-centered writing and the neobarocco style. To engage this matter, throughout my studies of expressivity and interculturality, I have engaged the philosophy of Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

Paranoia is the engine that drives many texts, including much of my own writing. The very concept of “interculturality,” which I advance, depends on the possibility of a common substance spreading itself through various otherwise distinctive cultural forms. Substance or energy? A field sustained by the energy that generates the field. An energy to which I attach the term, “expressivity.” Coherent syntax fails me. My notion of the immanent relies on the certainty that desire and paranoia will inescapably reveal themselves. Jacques Lacan suggests that there is a moment in which the delusional structure of thought reveals itself. The subject becomes aware that it is thinking what it is thinking and the effect is alienating. “Up to what point can a discourse that seems personal bear, on the level of the signifier alone, a sufficient number of traces of impersonalization for the subject not to recognize it as his own?”[1] In this sense the goal of art and of the commentaries which I have undertaken is an impossible impersonalization in the name clarity and objectivity.

Donald Wellman




[1] I am indebted to Emily Apter for this discussion of paranoia and the mirror effect of self-alienation in the work of Jaques Lacan. Against World Literature (NY: Verso, 2013):78-81.




Sunday, September 25, 2016

Notes from the Center on Public Policy

My subject is Mark Wallace’s Notes from the Center on Public Policy (Altered Scale 2014), but I begin with some reflections of Robert Duncan’s The H.D. Book (U. Cal., 2011). I must also note with sadness due to the ephemerality of the web, as Jeff Derkson noted on his blog. In any case, the fine works produced at Altered Scale, even those that took paperback form, are now extremely difficult to find.


For Duncan, to simplify, the work of H.D., E.P., as well as his own, is “making it new.” Make something old and missing again vital, restoring ourselves to ourselves. Poetry is understood as a process of old forms, old forces, and old faces surfacing through the palimpsests that are the multiple surfaces of new work. The perception of immanence, that, by contrast to Duncan, I sometimes seek to articulate, lies among multiple discrete parts, associated by contiguities and discontinuities that reveal rifts and aporias. These gaps may indeed be all or the only stuff of immanence, an articulation of negative space. Otherwise the work product may more nearly resemble Brownian movement in a perpetually transformative swirl, never patterned entelechies.

Duncan writes, “the time of a poem is felt as a recognition of a return in vowel tone and in consonant formations, of pattern in the sequence of syllables, in stress and in pitch of a melody, of images and meanings” (99). Beauty of language aside, the factor of a return is crucial for Duncan, not Wallace. Within the phrasing and semantic drift of Wallace’s unrelenting and convoluted paragraphs, there is little attention to the prosodic features that so delight Duncan and which many today, including myself, often build into poetry as baroque ornamentation, if not evidence of soulfulness. Wallace evokes the anti-humanistic ethos of our corporate and message-driven world of political and consumerist clichés, offering page after page of sculpted but cumulatively directionless paragraphs. For Wallace, it seems then, that there is now no poetry, at least of the identifiable sort dear to Duncan. The book intends primarily, however, to mock the accumulation of human capital that is central to the postmodernism of Pierre Bourdieu. Swirling contradictory and inconclusive utterances test received notions of the real at every turn (15). The role of communication supersedes the value of the subject of communication. “Each official communication existed primarily to cement its relations to the previous communication while doing nothing about what it discussed” (18). Such abstract “cement” is the only perceptible real in this text. “It was impossible not to react. Revenge, retaliation, blame, sadness, seeking, seeking, analysis, cautious tentative balances, organizing, protesting, trading information, looking below or on surfaces, moaning lyricism, personal confessions …”(31). The list is endless, the commas do lend the phrasing a noticeable rhythmic effect. The passage denigrates any lyric value that might be attached to the ego (an expected effect). The long sentence cited above ends “no one was listening.” Language has attained the despairing depths familiar to Duncan’s sometime friend Jack Spicer. The language is not rhapsodic, or seductive contra a Jean Baudrillard. It is the only production that we have, but it has little meaning apart from its function as “cement,” little substance; instead, claims become things (40). The philosophical aporia that bedevils claims to immanence becomes “the brink of a rift” (53), but “drift” supplies a rhyme a few lines down the page. Wallace’s phrasing is impeccable, even at its most tedious. Accidentally, or as a result of dumb association, to my mind, as I read the above passage, I heard the word ”riff,” understood as a take on a melody, ceaselessly and purposefully mundane. With such stuff, poetry may articulate its bare bones?


Donald Wellman

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Cows nostrils are blue: an essay on practice with comments on Barrett Watten’s Questions of Poetics



“Cows nostrils are blue,” the thought came out of nowhere or maybe from a typo while translating a discrete phrase in a line from the poetry of Roberto Echavarren. I claim authorship, however, and want to discuss both the language and the image conveyed by the language. The context is remarks made by Barrett Watten in his recent book, Questions of Poetics. Watten has divided the world of postmodern American poetry into two broad swathes. Poets have now become poet/critics, so the argument runs. Both of these conjoined identities have their origin in William Carlos Williams, specifically, the poetry/prose division or duality inscribed within the text of Spring and All. The poet/critic, it turns out, is a figure, circumscribed between a duality of lyric utterance that is largely subjective and an objective critical persona who performs the duty of declaring that the language and imagery of the poem have universal significance (although Williams’s prose deliberately undercuts poetic seriousness). The “turn toward language,” associated with the figures of Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Carla Harryman, Lynn Hejinian, among others including Watten himself, is understood as transforming a precarious and untenable duality into an embrace of socially-conditioned textuality. One could say that the critical function, rather than being split off, has been absorbed within the empirical functioning of the poet. The “expanded field” of the title comes to be when the poet welds together essayistic critical thought with the bending of syntax at the lyrical level of versification. And that critical function is not always about language, although language is one aspect of the socially constructed world that engages the critical intelligence of the poet; however, rather than being only grammatical, the language also engages, is modified by and modifies, the perception of social reality, its economics and politics. Of course the turn toward language as grammar or etymology is also very present in the work of both Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. These poets may or may not have excavated a radical particularity that deconstructs implicit social facts. “Social facts” is a term I borrow from Berthold Brecht. So the turn toward language in Olson does not perhaps push very far into social implications although his work, Watten acknowledges, also sets the course for the emergence of the postmodern “poet/critic.”

Let’s return to the image of “cows nostrils.” The object-image, does not share the same level or mode of objectivity, as a statement about rampant racism in the hiring practices of academia or about the homosocial milieu of much Black Mountain poetry (that is Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s position). But to the “cow,” I have reason to believe it is a porcelain animal with flared nostrils. Blue because of the glaze or alternatively blue, out there in the pasture where it grazes, blue because of a nasal drip. I imagine a fusty atmosphere whose bric-a-brac require dusting, or a pastoral scene where pollen dust excites allergies. Meaning, if there is any here, would seem to derive from opaque personal associations and fall into the category that Watten associates with the “autonomous monad of lyrical poetry” (103).  Reading requires “envisagement.” The promise of universal meaning has been cut off by severe opacity, lost, betrayed. The reader is unable to envisage meaning and so concocts an envisagement in a game effort to appreciate the image. The concept of envisagement is central to Ron Silliman’s “new sentence,” a sentence with unexpected torqueing of associations that impel the reader to envisage meaning because of an in-built thirst for coherence.[1] One might look at the phrase, “cows nostrils are blue,” as language instead of as an example of a concrete particular. The statement is a fully declarative utterance and also a universalizing utterance, admitting of no challenge to its truth. Perhaps the reader can ingest the declaration and respond with speech acts. The text remains amusingly opaque. A second way of mastering the challenge of the concrete particular, as Watten understands it, would be to ground the work within a social horizon. An example from Silliman’s “toner,” for instance, employs references to the Vietnam War and the Manson murders.
Le Duc Tho. In memory’s slomo,
bullshit monk flickers smoldering,
and goes out.

Up against the all in-inclusive
Fate of what?
                        Charlie Manson look-alike
tried to thumb a ride.
Gears mock
                        industrial song
the way fear makes a long night.[2]
Here the referents exist in socio-historical space, not some imagist nirvana like my cow. Allusion instead of image is primary for establishing “radical” or analytical usage, and that usage is not necessarily objective, although it is tested for what might be called its truth value. Watten continues, “The monolog takes itself apart only to recombine again” (93). This auto-analysis constitutes the turn toward language. Note, however, that unfolding syntax of this order may be associated not only with language writing but also with the American and Latin forms of the Neo-baroque that are central to my current studies. The rhyme of ”gears” and “fears” used here by Silliman for an emphatic closure is not very different from  baroque ornamentation. Indeed my sample phrase can be understood as multiply complex too, a palimpsest of folded forms. A blue cow with blue nostrils is sacred to Krishna for instance. And then there is the folkloric “babe” the blue ox.

The bifurcated allegiance of the expressivist poet who employs objective reference and thereby hopes to register personal affect or subjectivity, on the one hand, and the language poet, on the other hand, who turns to language in order to engage the social constructedness of the text is the subject of Chapter Six, “The Expanded Object in the Poetic Field.” This essay reads as a summative clarification of the rules of the game, hypothetically. The poet no longer suffers from the abyssal failure associated with the particular/universal divide. Watten’s text offers a hypothetical thought game. The example of Olson is used to examine a failure to incorporate truths of a social order; for instance, Olson’s method is said to ignore the relation of gender to production whereas language-centered work is produced in a diversely gendered working group. Social history is referenced in order to support claims of “radical immanence” on behalf of language-associated poets (213). The articulation of a very different “radical immanence,” grounded in the work of Giles Deleuze, is a central aim of my current studies. Olson’s engagement with gender, contra Watten, is the subject of the essay, “Olson and Subjectivity,” where I argue that deeply gendered perceptions of the role of his father and his mother and the loss of his wife, Bette, constitute an engagement with gender that is disturbing because of its effects in the social field of the family and the poem.[3]

Olson’s stance is identified by Watten as one of “antidualist immanence” wherein the poet/critics internal splitting is not recognized by a poetics that claims to engage knowledge through poetic inquiry. The contrast to Olson’s projective method is a concept of “textuality” (214). Watten cites the homosociality” of Olson and his close followers and contrasts it with the multiple ways in which language writing engaged women as social equals within the working group, an oft commented difference.[4] What is the effect of this demographic divide on “textuality”? As an example of “textuality,” Peter Seaton’s “An Example from the Literature” is cited:
There is no text and its pleasures devolve
Upon this tristesse. There’s always a logic
in which the security of the existence of the momentarily
Unimaginable is ignored in the down to earth
Construction of the perfect poem. (cited Watten 215)
Indeed “desire” and “melancholy” are presented here as subjective and resistant to “textuality.” Gender itself is neither marked nor unmarked. In general female language poets address gender-based controversies factually. A delicious catalog of gendered perceptions is the subject of Lyn Hejinian and Carla Harryman’s  The Wide Road. One passage reads, “A milky blue steam rises to the surface of the sky. / Everything overlaps. All that is animate is abstract.”[5] Gender does inform perception. Always, but here the presentation of the image is highly opaque and the entailed commentary is gnomic and universal. The example presents both poles of the of the argument that Watten develops concerning the poet/critic in Questions of Poetics. The universalizing element is figured ironic.
  
Watten’s perceptions will engage the reader who is familiar with the territory cited. They may serve as an introduction to the differences between the poetry of late modernism and the poetry associated with the “turn toward language” in the 70s. He tends to argue from a position that entertains hypothetical assertions whose truth value may be doubtful and which take convoluted, densely packed form. He cites multiple and redundant polarities in intriguing ways, productive for the reader of engaged reflection. Nothing he says can be dismissed as irrelevant to the history of language-centered writing and its potential future influence. The flux of the intellectual force may seem stunted because the negative pole to textuality, the pole associated with immanence, is a too strong attractor possessed of its own uncanny energy. In any case, references to “immanence,” in one form or another, are numerous. Indeterminacy of meaning, falling within different registers, remains a characteristic of both late modernism/postmodernism (the school of Olson) and the work associated with language writing. Abstractions found in the “language-identified” poetry cited in these paragraphs offer no particularly radical constructs…similarly so Olson’s concrete particulars, even Williams’s were no guarantor of coherence. Questions of Poetics nonetheless, offers an occasion for engaging different registers and overlays of the poetics of texturality.



[1] See “The New Sentence” in The New Sentence (NY: Roof, 1985) 63-93.
[2] Ron Silliman, The Alphabet (Alabama 2008) 486.
[3] “Olson and Subjectivity: 'Projective Verse' and The Uncertainties of Sex.” Olson Now: Documents. Electronic Poetry Center. SUNY BuffaloDec. 8, 2005.http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/olson/blog/. A revised version appears in Olson's Prose, Gary Grieve-Carlson editor (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007) 47-61.
[4] Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Purple Passages (Iowa City : Iowa 2012) 129 and 215n14 where my “Olson and Subjectivity” is discussed.
[5] NY: Belladonna, 2011