Saturday, April 21, 2018

Manhattan Journal: A Lost Text Recovered

I am looking out on the scaly yellow brick art-deco facades of midtown and contemplating the numerous wooden roof top water tanks. These pages will review two performances at Lincoln Center and engage my visit to the renovated Museum of Modern Art. It is Saturday, July 23, 2005.

One (see below), Shen Wei Dance Arts at the New York State Theater. In 2008, this group will choreograph the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The setting promises to be luminous, according to the publicity for the Lincoln Center performance. The night before, I attended Patrick Ferneyhough and Charles Bernstein's Shadowtime at the Rose Theater. The reviews for these performances were not good and they were not. The review of Shadowtime in the New York Times of July 23 is hostile, that of Philadelphia Inquirer was "curious."

New York Times Review:

My review of Shadowtime is mixed. To me the production testified to one of the kernel truths of this age of America's fatal self-immolation: overproduction, magnificent overproduction in glass, steel, and multi-story aluminum and crystal foyers: Frank Gehry comes to mind as well as ribbons of interlaced eight lane freeways. The venue for the production of Shadowtime, the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Building at Columbus Circle. The designers of this futuristic nightmare and seven-story mall have been commission to reimagine what has been lost at the World Trade Center site. This reprise of postmodern architecture is not an incidental aside. It is thematic.

For all my indirection then, I have always suspected an operatic as well as a cinematic scale to be implicit to the activities of some members of the current avant-garde, a vision shared in the past by artists by modern artists: the Dada circle or the Russian futurists or Jean Cocteau, even Blaise Cendrars who gave us a libretto for Darius Milhaud’a La Creation du Monde. Ezra Pound wrote three operas. I have now had my suspicions of how spectacle might deride spectacle confirmed. “Deriding” while “enacting” catches the appropriate postmodern ethos. My appreciation cannot detach itself from the grandiosity and grandiloquence of the scale of the production values in Shadowtime.

The staging by Frédéric Fisbach and set design by Emmanuel Clolus provide a highly-amplified range of sensory experiences. Ferneyhough's music too has a supersaturated quality: oracular and specular, the twelve voices of the chorus in their various dramatic functions, usually robed in a workman-like blue, the turning bed or chair, pulled by silent ropes, on which a collapsed figure of Walter Benjamin or one of his avatars, lies collapsed under the weight of history. A stone, in a final moment of commemoration, becomes a transcendent object. The production values bring up the crucial issue of vision. To what degree can such transcendent matter be attributed in any sense to the historical Walter Benjamin? Would he allow fact to be subsumed by aura? To what degree then is the production a display of the fantasies of the composer and author? The answer is highly mixed, unsatisfactory in some respects.

The intelligence of the libretto by Charles Bernstein, with its at times insouciant irreverence, provides an element of refreshment over against what might be thought of as a sententious approach to the death of Walter Benjamin. To my ears Brian Ferneyhough's music was a witty deployment of too many avant-garde clichés, sometimes brilliant in the fact of performance, but also too much exactly that, a score to be ridden with glee and showmanship and wit. The music flirted and bubbled with ethereal woodwind notes, dissonant and muzzy images that seemed to have very little to do with the trenchant realism of the author of the Arcades. "Shadows" suggests auras and ghosts as well as a child's game of hand shadows on the wall. Folk material of this later sort inform aspects of the libretto, but I reject the notion that Benjamin sought to retrieve some form of substitute for the aura associated with religious medievalism, Jewish or Christian. For him the lack of the aura was a healthy fact of modern technological society, a freedom.

A reader familiar with Bernstein's personal iconography will note the intelligence and deep resonance with which it was deployed here, freely, in its own right (rite), again leaving a puzzle as to the relevance of the work to Benjamin's thought or life. The famous Marx brothers (Groucho, Karl, ...) are here, bathed in a red glow, and catches from childhood, mangled in a Wittgensteinian language-game provide the texts for some the choral moments in the production. For all my mixed mutterings, I want to identify two musical high points, the pivotal piano/recitative identified as a shadow play, Opus contra naturam, and the epilog, a choral (assigned to the Angel of History) with raspy bass notes attaining a funereal and pensive somberness, providing in this instance a felt connection to the tragedy of Benjamin's suicide. At moments like these, the collaboration between composer and poet reached it's highest degree of concordance, as words and music seemed independently powerful, yet correspondingly reinforcing.
A version of the above text was posted to the Electronic Poetry Center, Poetics List, on the night of the 22nd. During the following day, I explored the spaces of the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art. My notebook is full of observations about the different presences within different galleries, the conjunctions of these presences strangely exciting to me.

One of the first images that I came upon, after darting through the surrealistic illusions of Rene Magritte: Diego Rivera’s Zapata, with a noble white horse, a prancing mount from a Renaissance canvas by Paolo Uccello, the hero’s eyes not focused on the present moment as are the eyes of his companions. Gift of Abigail Rockefeller. In patriarchal atonement for the removal of Rivera’s mural from Radio City Center?

To find this amazing image, opposite Otto Dix’s fat doctor, one of the more unsettling images from the repertoire of German Expressionism, a representation of unjustified smugness: Dr. Mayer-Hermann. Berlin 1926. Dix’s doctor has always functioned, to my imagination, as an evil gynecologist maybe because of the reflective lamp on his forehead. If chance turns the viewer around, back to the Rivera, there is a disturbing image to its left of a head giving birth to a head by David Siqueiros. Here is how the curator understands the combinations in this gallery:

In the tenth gallery, paintings by the politically engaged Social Realists are on view; these works by German, American, and Mexican artists address the dramatically shifting socio-political climate of the interwar period. Highlights include large-scale paintings by Max Beckmann and the Mexican muralist painters Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, as well as selections from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940-41).

The turn is from freak gynecology to screaming freak parthenogenesis. Other than the set by Jacob Lawrence, no other paintings by African-Americans were on offer in the tenth gallery with the exception of the necessary gesture, a collage by Romaire Beardon.

On the fifth floor are the riches of MOMA’s European collection, on the fourth, mostly Americans of the New York School. Ferdinand Léger and Wilfredo Lam gained a new power to draw my attention: Léger because of his association with Blaise Cendrars on whom I am currently writing and Lam because his invention of a pictorial tropical forest that rhymes with other forms of the birth of négritude in the Caribbean. Lam illustrated some of Aimé Césaire’s work. The conceptual relation between artists and books is well documented, both on the fifth floor and in the graphics gallery: the zaum poet Aleksi Kruchenykh’s suprematist books, like photo albums on blue construction paper with odd bits, squares and filaments, breaking the boundary of the page, as well as an actual copy of Rodchenko’s  design for Mayakofsky’s Pro Eto. I often wish my hand could work in my notebooks in a way that approaches the freshness of design on pages like these. Futurist books like that of Tullio d’Albisola fascinate me with their raw typography. Similar to my current notebooks projects, providing models for possible approaches, are examples of the integration of text with the deconstruction of the visual field in works by Cy Twombley or Joseph Beuys.

Joseph Beuys. Untitled (Sun State). (1974). Chalk on painted board with wood frame, 47 1/2 x 71 1/8" (120.7 x 180.7 cm). Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (by exchange) and acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (by exchange). © 2005 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In Beuy’s Eurasian-Siberian Symphony (1963), a dead rabit is bound, cruelly to a spear, by multiple coils on the legs. His carcass forms the north of this cosmic-terrestrial map.

Of Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, the third is text, the second is a photograph of the actual chair on display. An important  discovery in this vein is the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres (next page).

"Untitled" (Death by Gun). 1990. Stack of photolithographs, STACK: 9 x 44 15/16 x 32 15/16" (22.9 x 114.1 x 83.6 cm) at ideal height. Edition: endless copies. Printer: variable (to date Register Litho, New York). Publisher: unpublished. Purchased in part with funds from Arthur Fleischer, Jr. and Linda Barth Goldstein. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation. 

Reflections and mental excursions: too numerous include Matisse’s The Red Room, the tonality a blood burgundy, not a luminescent red. Cézanne’s swatch like brush strokes become, Mondrian’s flakes of dried tidal mud from parched and eroded riverbeds, also Delaunay’s prismatic ribbons. Klee has a quality of rough shingled squares adjacent to other similar squares, for instance, Fire in the Evening (1929). This art of scaling forms with rough textures is my private idiom for nightmares. Joaquin Torres-Garcia from Uruguay uses a similar language. Jesus Rafael-Soto (1923-2005), more stark than any of those mentioned, presents a construction of fine chicken wire, rusted, looped freely like numerous broken musical strings, attached to the rightmost of two vertically disposed beams of aged and worn wood, raspy, unyielding surfaces, all wobbly on little bent nail legs.

Jesús Rafael Soto. Untitled. 1959-60. Wood, painted wood, metal and nails, 35 3/8 x 11 3/4 x 13 3/8" (89.9 x 29.8 x 34 cm). Committee on Painting and Sculpture Funds. © 2005 Jesús Rafael Soto

At lunch in the museum, I wrote: “To continue with the theme of overproduction in the USA, the answer I often assume relates to the outsized wealth of the country, a reverential showiness. A museum like MoMA is largely a means for displaying wealth on a suitably outsized, aggrandizing scale. The walls, an unending hit parade, establish market value in the process of selection and rejection. MoMA is thorough in its identification of the state of legal arrangements relative to items of suspect provenance, those involving confiscation by Nazis, for instance. The place of Malevich’s Suprematist Composition is secured by such an evidentiary notice. I had forgotten that Picasso’s Ma Jolie is housed here, surely his most private and most abstract image. It’s scale is far more modest than digitalized projections of its mysteries might suggest. That reassured me. The scale almost homey, but also only a part of the generalized wash of spectacular items on display. The open quadrants or cubes of this paining in their charcoal grays and luminescent creams intersect with my primary nightmare or preconscious imaginary, weathered shakes or shingles in endless, destabilizing overlap.

Somewhere in the raw observations of my notebook is a mediation on the slices in a surface. Mieke Bal comments on the baroque fold that is the slit representing the spear wound penetrating Christ’s skin in Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1601-1602). I had to wonder if the encrusted opening in Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Comment 1960 were not an allusion to the way in which issues of flatness and abstraction fuse throughout the history modern art. Donald Judd’s Relief 1961 forms another wry commentary on the subject, an ordinary bread pan embedded in a thick, rough black square.

Lucio Fontana. Spatial Concept: Expectations. 1959. Oil on slashed canvas, 16 1/2 x 25 3/4" (41.9 x 65.4 cm). The Riklis Collection of McCrory Corporation. © 2005 Fondation Lucio Fontana

There is a dart of blue that I never before noticed outlining the right thigh and crotch of the woman, second from, the left in Demoiselles d’Avignon. The boy who leads the horse of 1906 has had his penis brushed out. I had assumed there was a loincloth there. The breasts of the pregnant Francois Gilot in Woman Looking in a Mirror, actually seem to swell. The Seated Bather, so skeleton-like, castrating mother image that she is, also has a bit of seashell carapace on the upper part of her spine. It never fails, in the case of  Picasso that a new observation sets my mind to a skewed spinning.

Impossible to order the still persistent impressions, conflated, dissonant. Some reviewers have found the new MOMA to be dully utilitarian. They miss the intimacy provided by niches in the former layout. I found the large spaces elegant, and the contradictions embraced in the passage from object to object to be revelatory.

The sky tonight is the most resplendent blue and the air crisp but also baking hot, a surreal desert air in the city. The performance by Shen Wei Dance Arts consisted of two unrelated pieces. The first, Near the Terrace, Part 1 presents the most remarkable series of visual tableaux, modeled on paintings by Paul Delvaux, all dancers seeming to float in a chalky mesmerizing atmosphere of coiled tensions. Only at moments is there a darting release when a body flies, parallel to the floor into the outstretched arms of another. Otherwise motion is extreme slow motion, as if underwater, requiring impossible to imagine levels of athleticism for the dancers to maintain the required poise. The human form, as often in Delvaux’s case is bare breasted, male or female, with long skirts, creating an androgynous rather than an individualized identity. The music was from Fur Alina by Alvo Pärt. Eight, ten, or twelve dancers, in different patterns, crossed the floor or scaled a wall, imperceptible steps or leg-over-leg scuttles. Changing patterns of support (Deleuzian machines) allowed a body to rest on or crawl over or be carried by another, but there was no communication, other than touch, no sense of looking at one another, no sense of a message or urgency, only a trance of graceful forms, hallucinatory coordination in an atmosphere both dense and translucent.

The second piece, Map (2005) is very ambitious, breaking down the choreographers unique vocabulary in six different parts before re-assembling the whole in the seventh segment. Shen Wei is from China and has worked in the USA for ten years now, presenting for each of the last three years at the Lincoln Center Festival. The music for Map (2005) was Steve Reich’s Desert Music, a composition that in turn uses words from William Carlos Williams’ poem The Desert Music. The score in its minimalist insistence on the relation between volume and repetition has only an abstract relation to Williams’s lyrics, the poetry standing at a barely perceptible third degree of correspondence to the choreography. Still, whether Williams’s presence could be felt or not, there is a palpably American idiom in play throughout Map (2005). To a degree the setting and some of the gestures were reminiscent of Westside Story, further adding to the impression of an American idiom. The piece, according to the programs notes, is conceived in a conscious relation to the choreographer’s signature bounces and unwinding spiral forms. Two specific motions that seem distinctive of Shen Wei’s style are a leg over scuttle of the figure prone on the floor, fast here as opposed to ethereally slow in Near the Terrace, Part 1. A second movement makes the body into a very floppy coil. Figures in some early street scenes by John Sloan have a similarly exaggerated plastic feel. Still Map (2005)is relatively uninspired, possibly unoriginal in comparison to Near the Terrace, Part I. Yet rewardingly, for all the opacity of the work, its bouncing and spiraling parts come together in the seventh and final section, which is truly kaleidoscopic and gritty.


One lovely aspect of my experiences this weekend were random conversations with people that started up when exiting the theater and continued onto the streets, both nights. After Shadowtime I found myself exchanging views with a male dancer from the Netherlands, remarkable the consensus of feeling that we shared. After the performance by Shen Wei Dance Arts, I found myself in conversation with a woman who works in one of the offices at Lincoln Center. Even though she said that she was hard-pressed to get home and feed her infant son, as she wheeled her bicycle with infant carrier down the sidewalks past the garish Time-Warner complex, possibly the new heart of NYC, Trump Tower being diagonally across Broadway, she could not stop expostulating with passion on the subject of the skill of the Shen Wei Dance Arts dancers. My feelings only partially match hers, remarkable though that she would share her passion for this subject with me, a huge orange moon overhead.


Preparing for bed, home in New Hampshire now, two memories come back from the museum: Rauschenberg’s brilliant colors. Solid primary tones, baroque lighting, tracing the edges in the areas of saturated color in the figurative areas while a more suffused light makes a ghostly wash over the collaged posters. His overpainting transforms collage into a way of painting, distinct from the tectonics of assembling found materials (in Schwitters for instance, who comes closest to the same effect). Each work is a studied and painterly composition. The second impression, detaching itself from the visual wash in my forebrain: Creeley gazes from R. B. Kitaj’s The Chio Gang (1964), his eye like a light source, follows his green arm and hand, falling on a man in a panama hat who interviews a nude woman whom he holds on his lap as another weaves a yellow ribbon, a second hint of color, into her hair. A red-eyed ghoul pushes a baby carriage. The motion recursive to the matter most central to these pages: words in transformation: Bernstein’s by Ferneyhough,  Williams’s by Reich’s music as interpreted by Shen Wei, and now, thanks to Kitaj, an inscrutable novel, referencing Creeley, in comic, serio-scary collage. The more the poet’s words are dissociated from the schemes that animate the visual artist or choreographer with whom a form of correspondence has come to be, possibly a collaboration, the more dissociation allows freedom in composition. A similar species of connection between motion and music was the heart of the Cage-Cunningham collaborations. Functioning like a motor at the heart of a crowded New York City intersection, people surge together and filter away, a pursuit of values that describes previously non-existent interspaces.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Opera Night: Street Scene


On a day in a February, shortly after the coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, the holy and the insane, I attended a performance of Street Scene with book by Elmer Rice and music by Kurt Weil, Langton Hughes, lyrics. I sat under the baroque garlands of the box seats in the Teatro Real, before me a stage setting that represented a tenement on the lower East Side, shades of David Belasco, the set both naturalistic and expressionistic. It resembled cages or cates piled on top of one another. A tale is told of, Jews, Irish and Italians in depression era New York City. I won’t rehearse the plot. What is the plural of immigrant Irish, my native tribe? In this same historical period was I conceived. Destiny dealt a desperate and hopeless hand then to mothers and fathers, adolescent children and young children alike. In the denouement, Rose is unable to leave the scene of the tragic murder of her mother and the arrest of her father, who had murdered his wife in a jealous, alcoholic rage. The character of Frank Maurrant is a larger-than-life sized bully, a suitable admonishment for bullish men today in an age like ours. The choral finale spoke to his love for the woman he had murdered, inescapable social realism of a Marxist bent, with incidental comic tableaus, where the genius of Hughes takes on the rhythms of hop-scotch and other sidewalk games. All philosophy is articulated at the level of the comic strips. Ignorance oppresses those with generous hearts. Street Scene  presents a social realism that feeds on the failure of the American Dream. And yet one is compelled to cry. What can be said about the grand choral offered near the conclusion? “He loved her.” The melodrama brought tears to my eyes. I’m such a softy! For me an esthetic problem of interest lay in teaching the different idioms of immigrant NYC around 1940 to a cast whose English seemed largely attuned to the standards of the British Royal Academy, but then stereotype is comical, possibly intentionally so, low relief for those who identify with poverty and desperation. What an undertaking the show was! A cast of hundreds and plot lines at cross purposes. “Heterogeneous” is a relevant descriptor. It's time for a Broadway revival!

Donald Wellman

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Editing Coherence

Editing Coherence in 1981:

Desire in the shadow of first-generation language-centered poetry.

Coherence was the first number of O.ARS, a self-described “gathering of experiments in writing: toward a new poetics.” Two precursor roots are embedded in the subtitle, honorific ancestor projects: “gathering” was meant in homage to the anthologizing projects of Jerome Rothenberg, especially  America a Prophecy coedited with George Quasha; the other Donald Allen’s, The New American Poetics. As the editor of O.ARS (initially with the assistance of Cola Franzen, Richard Waring, and Irene Turner), I saw the undertaking as an anthology in the dada vein, unworried by contradictions, embracing the new with revolutionary fervor and finding glimmers of spiritual transcendence under rubrics like “process,” “perception,” and “method.” In the introduction “forword / forward” [stet], I wrote sentences like “Allowed to run at seeming random, the imagination returns to us the most convincing coherences.” That was my summation of David Antin’s “Radical Coherency,” a talk given over the radio at my invitation to participate in the launching of O.ARS and now the title of his recent book from the University of Chicago Press. Of Ron Silliman’s projects, specifically Rhizome (also included in Coherence), at the time described by Ron as a series of combinations generated from a single set of 169 sentences, the pleasure being in locating sentences that  “Chomsky would see as not possible,” I wrote that I had found, meanings that don’t require explanation.” Then I continued: “A puzzle allows both surprise and understanding. A riddle penetrates the inevitability of suffering.” I think I have now sufficiently unburdened myself of my medievalist and transcendentalist roots. I am suggesting that in 1981 I found “affect” to be palpably present in the work of some figures associated with language poetry although “affect,” “voice” and “expressivity” represent a highly suspicious set of emotions from some language-centered points of view.

 “Strip off the protective gauze of justification” was the watchword of O.ARS in its beginning. The virgule as well as the “running horse: or “gimlet eye” were symbols to me of the poetic process: to cut or slash and to assemble into a vortex of sustained energy. 

What is O.ARS, what does it mean: it is a going forward with the eyes on the past. It is an ironic cry, primal white sound with a pun on “ars” and “arse.”
Coherence, the first number of O.ARS, gathered a variety of “other stream,” as they are now called, poetic practices: the heart of the project lay with the continuing vitality of poets in the Black Mountain College vein, in its total purity, say Robert Creeley, and as inflected by dada, say Jerome Rothenberg. Michael Andre’s at Unmuzzled Ox was also highly inspirational, in terms of contents and the care he took with production. The projected highlighted the ethnographic thread common to both surrealism and the Olson/Creeley tradition. That too was fundamental to my editing posture and remains fundamental to my practice as a poet. It was as a poet that I began to edit, not a scholar. I had ceased to care about the venues that had once been receptive to my work and wanted instead to be associated with work that I admired. I made statements of that sort when soliciting the different voices represented in Coherence, the first number of O.ARS. I have copies of my correspondence with the constellation of authors by which I set my course, from Antler and Armentrout to  Sorrentino and J. Rutherford Willems. Where is he?

Starting with the modernists for whom the page had specific visual properties: Pound, Williams, Olson, it seems logical that the agenda for O.ARS would include concrete or typewriter poetry (Karl Kempton) or visual poetry, poesia visiva as Klaus Peter Dencker, Luciano Ori and others would have it. I cannot reconstruct how it was that I was able to locate and publish works by Bern Porter, maybe it was correspondence with Dick Higgins. Surely I had already written to Mark Melnicove also.  

It was Dencker who introduced me to the visual poet that I still find to be most stunning when I browse the full set of O.ARS publication, the “Speech sheets” of Carlfriedrich Claus.

The different experimental vectors of which I was aware at the time included not only language-centered writing but also  a spectrum of European and Latin American avant-garde work, also what was then called sur-fiction. The later was a gift from Raymond Federman and not a far leap in my mind to the work of Paul Metcalf, another early contributor.

O.ARS was in the vein, you see, of a grand synthesis, a wedding of American pragmatism we will call it (as Don Byrd does) with avant-garde abstraction. I sought a synthesis, instead of making a partisan in support of a particular poetic stance as may have been the editorial stances of Jimmy and Lucy’s House of K or Vanishing Cab, both journals discussed in comparison with O.ARS, at a conference at the National Poetry Foundation (Orono 2012).

My sympathy with language-centered writing remains pronounced even though there might be an elements of parrying and counterthrust in my presentation.  Many poets identified with such language writing were included in the earliest editions of O.ARS. My Bruce Andrews and my Bob Perlman and my Barrett Watten are stunning poets. One of the most interesting letters in the O.ARS archives comes from Charles Bernstein who a bit querulously asked me, to justify my interest in language-writing, a challenge that represented exactly the kind of give-and-take that I had hoped to find when undertaking O.ARS in the first place.

1981 the first year of O.ARS was also the last year L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the magazine. I treasure everything I have shared with Charles and learned from him as if with a brother. He is the most brilliant reader I have yet encountered. Soon he became instrumental in helping to shape O.ARS (like Creeley, Federman, and Fanny Howe, contributing editors). Like many poets at the time,  I was scurrying to catch up with Charles, for I had just begun to read Benjamin and Derrida and Cavell. And these readings were the subject of our correspondence and conversation and of my attempts to create editorial material for O.ARS.

Beyond the avant-garde and beyond philosophy, for me there remained the matter of a poetic address to desire. In many senses I am a one-eyed son of New England, that is haptically, my true poetic angel-spirit is Robert Creeley. What distinguished O.ARS from similar projects at the time was a sense of experiment designed to identify some form of coherence at work in the production of poetry, a transcendence not necessarily existing outside or beyond the poem but nonetheless satisfying in its apprehension.  A similar but not identical goal had already been expressed in Charles Olson’s statement borrowed from Robert Creeley: “form is only an extension of content.” You might in the case of Creeley’s phrase, read “form” as the coefficient of an immanent transcendence. From henceforth coherence would reside in method, but in 1980 such coherence was also expected to produce some glimmer of an uplifting change of consciousness. Our mentors, as well as many of us who came to poetry in the 80s had experimented with the mushroom. In the years after Vietnam, I lived in the forests of Oregon. Addressing the material of language with as much analytical scrutiny as I could muster from that perspective, I sought the visionary moment, almost as the promise that it was, that glimmer or flash was the reward implicit in undertaking unstinting and uncompromising hard work. So puritanical and so unoriginal in the final analysis , but a register of desire in O.ARS that is uniquely palpable.

After Coherence came Perception, its twin, O.ARS 2. Leafing through its pages today what strikes me most is a phrase in a statement of Charles Bernstein “the membrane of consciousness is language.” (137). Here, in response to the irreducible necessity of language for analysis or conceptualization,  I may have been arguing for a form of direct perception” as Pound would have phrased it. The light within the light that Hildegard von Bingen associated with joy and child-like affection. As an aside, I note, that part of the O.ARS formula was to assemble documents from the historic literature related to each of its themes. If we are to talk about perceptions of any order, direct or mystical (and I love the fact that it can be both); nonetheless, it is by attending to the membrane of language, what passes through its permeable surface or barrier as Charles would soon have it in his poem The Artifice of Absorption. Still, in each volume of O.ARS (there were nine), there is a strong commitment to perception as a form of cognition rooted in feelings and shaping a world. I think especially a score by my close friend the composer William Goldberg, a setting of a poem by Theodore Enslin, “A Little Night Music,” not an avant-garde score but surely a visual rendering of feeling and perception that is more graphically immediate than language raw and linear.

The most amazing editorial discovery of Perception is the poem “Lair” by Saúl Yurkievich, translated by my co-editor Cola Franzen. Her attention to the Latin avant-garde was fundamental to the vision and success of O.ARS.

… scored speech to the extreme perhaps.

The commitment to translation as experiments in reading, a three-part series that followed Perception, like the perception to visual space in music and poetry is a commitment to sound as a perceptual and communicative matrix, not filtered by language, or if it is language, it is language “voiced.” I never intended to win every argument with which I engaged. To do the twist or rumba, if I could was my hope.

O.ARS  was looking to challenge boundaries or limits of language while acknowledging how language inflected thought and was also coterminous manner or method of expression. For instance, in calling for “a speaking within hearing” in 1989 (O.ARS 6: Voicing), I was arguing against “a speaking without hearing.” Peter Quartermain cites this phrase in his “Sound Reading” (Bernstein, Poetry and the Performed Word, 1998: 224). My purpose in choosing “voicing” as a theme clearly was not to prioritize individual voicing, cults of personality, or American exceptionalism. I was seeking a crazy weave between voice and vision and my reading of Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. My interest was political and far from subtle, but also an interest in prosody as Quartermain notes. Young poets, published in O.ARS, who had fine ears in this sense included Craig Watson, Gill Ott, and Andrew Levy.

On the political front, the projective sense of “voicing” (O.ARS 6/7) may have been simplistic. And derivative, derivative of my reading of Deleuze. For instance, I wrote, ”voicing, to emphasize process (growth, use) rather than terminal nodes or buds, is a double articulation between heterogeneous planes (different people, values, in fact voices). Perhaps I repeat myself monomaniacally (son of Olson that I appear to be): polis is eyes, yes, and voices (ayes), and the articulation of polis is a matter of prosody. Through studies in translation that I still pursue, as well as investigations of the prosody that marks the lyric or serial poem in English, I have sought and still seek words able to articulate a value for duration, for the desire that can be perceived to shape utterance. That is the justification for this essay’s subtitle, “Desire in the shadow of first-generation language-centered poetry.”
Donald Wellman, 18 Feb. 2018

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Joel Oppenheimer


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 ..


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:                                        
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
 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.

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.


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.

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.