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 clich├ęs, 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. 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