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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

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 undertaken 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.” I will use a strong first-person bias in the remainder of this talk because I am frankly monomaniacal, my own Ahab.  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 was conceived with the purpose of gathering together a variety of “other stream,” as they are now called, poetic practices: my heart 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 but Michael Andre’s at Unmuzzled Ox was at the time also highly inspirational, in terms of contents and the care he took with production. Today I want to underscore the ethnographic thread common to both surrealism and the Olson/Creeley tradition, as 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 admit that I was looking for a home for my work. I had ceased to care about the venues that had 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.
My project 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 here at Orono.

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.

Perhaps 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.
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, my sense of “voicing” 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 my subtitle, “Desire in the shadow of first-generation language-centered poetry.”

Monday, June 25, 2012

Gnostic Frequencies

Gnostic Frequencies

Spuytenduyvil, 2011

Patrick Pritchett in the endnote to his Gnostic Frequencies writes, “The crux of these gnostic frequencies lies here – in the unspeakable, the unutterable – in the darkness that surrounds and informs the matter of the poem as logos itself is what emerges, not from spirit, but out of earth. Whatever escapes language even as it transfigures it.” That sure sense of motion away from earthy or physical substances rhymes with my understanding of Gnosticism as I find it in a variety of poets including Ezra Pound, Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. In my A North Atlantic Wall there is a climbing toward ever higher elevations until, to my sense, the very soul dissolves. Call that pure immanence if it were possible to imagine such a stuff in substantive terms. Such is Pritchett’s project, but one riddled with ironic allusions to cybernetic culture or information technology. “Lyric says Ariel is the barcode of the dead” to cite one example. And the dead are our mentors in a gnostic universe. They are the ghosts who speak. Section three of Gnostic Frequencies  is a beautifully conceived sequence of testimony poems by revered poet-figures (not all deceased), offering a convincing register of such voices, a catalog or roll call: Basil Bunting, Frank Samperi or Gerrit Lansing (to name individual poems that I found trenchant in their ventriloquism) are echoed with uncanny sureness. Pritchett’s book is the voice made coherent, despite the crackling of white noise interfering with broad band transmission: lyric being the highest or most ethereal form of the logos.

I do not want to diminish the visionary element in Pritchett’s project. He is theorizing a universe founded on the materiality of language and its dismemberment in the cosmic stream. The resolution of the “Lyric Body” is his theme. The reflections of Ariel a gnostic secretary fill the first pages of the book , scattering puns, whose double sense is again a melding of worlds, let’s say earthly and virtual. The poem understood as a speech act instantiates the immaterial realm of secret knowledge, that is the Lyric Body or a “something beyond” (124).

Pritchett comes closest to this reach of the imagination with lines like: “The secret of transparency is /the opacity of its halo” from the title poem “Gnostic Frequencies” (119). His citation of esoteric knowledge is marked by play and the notion of inventory, catalog or handbook. In other words, he uses available bits of wisdom, not teach as divinely illuminated being might, but more as a physicist to make an analytic description of insubstantial thought. Like his gnostic scribe, Ariel, he is the transmitter, who offers a work of conceptual art, re-inscribing figures of enlightenment found in key gnostic texts from Plotinus to G.R.S. Mead (secretary to Madam Blavatsky and friend of Yeats and Pound). A surprising number of contemporary poets have been drawn in their work to the mysteries of transcendence employing figures of climbing, “rungs of water, “stairs of light” or stars. Nate Mackey comes to mind. His is another of Pritchett’s voices. At the level of irony, a distinctive aspect of Gnostic Frequency, the reader finds, “The firewall shattered by / the malware of lyric” (17).

Monday, April 30, 2012

Sunday, April 29: “Prosodic Intent”

Tom Clark’s Recent Poetry

At the Fair. BlazeVOX [Books], 2010.
Feeling for the Ground. BlazeVOX [Books], 2011.
Canyonesque. BlazeVOX [Books], 2011.
Distance.  BlazeVOX [Books], 2012.

Returning from Mendocino, I stopped over in Sacramento with my sister. In a used book store there, I found a copy of a volume of poetry by of Tom Clark that I purchased at a good price. Reading it, I was caught up in the crisp diction and its way of weaving words drawn from different landscapes both natural and absurd. I found a delightful quality of readability, call it “easy,” similar to good improvisation in good jazz. Now I have spent some pleasant hours with the Tom Clark titles recently released by Blazevox. I find a persistent pleasure in the quality of readability and in the landscape that seems so very Californian to me in retrospect, for I usually study poetry, puzzling over its pieces and its music, rather than kicking back with it. Reading poetry is a difficult art. For me it is often similar to translating from a language with which I am not as comfortable or as familiar as I would like to be. In reading Clark’s poetry, the ear with which I listen to the words is being addressed with a sense of weighted proportionality. The charm of Individual lines and the ways in which they enjamb, their elasticity has a feeling that has become the golden mean for artful unmetered verse. He writes:
Presence comes before everything, even before being
The you to whom everything once belonged
                                    from “To A Certain Friend” (Distances 65)

The doctrine of “presence” cited here is both nostalgic and stoic. The recognition of temporality as recursive form is mimed, like a ribbon turning on itself at the point where the lines wrap through enjambment. Ideas generated from a contemplation of “time” are central to the narrative of Distances  and much of Clark’s work. His lines fall over landscapes with a mapmaker’s precision:

From the flat overhead view the pieces
finally begin to fit together in a way
that makes sense, the way what you knew
and what you know, just before the end,
fold into one another as it all falls apart,
the compartments flooded, so that
the one terraced rice field may, in the flow
dynamic, counterbalance the course
of another.
             from “Above the Terraces” (Distances 68)

The folds that the mind must trace, in both quoted instances, are similar, present and past convoluted but separable vectors or segments of a curve. The resolution into terraced rice fields is spectacular, especially for one who has been to Vietnam or Bali. Distances presents a sustained and articulate discourse on the relation of the human individual to the construction of time.  The final poem is cinematic: “Time passed. There were people // gathering, milling in mute groups at the edge of the field, / small, silent. They came up /over the horizon, then fell back. This poem concludes with a wistful reference to a poem by Sohrab Sepheri (“The Distances” 73). Sepheri’s “Where is the House of my Friend” adapted from the Persian by Clark himself on his blog We have been lead through the poem as through an insistent argument and over lines that are traversed with an easy music. Clark is a sinuous follower of Pound’s dictum. “Poetry should be at least as well written as good prose.”

On Prosody
I admire the facts of readability that I have described in Tom Clark’s texts. But I also want to think about his line. At times there is a crowding of stressed or strong syllables that can seem ungainly: “flat overhead view.” His lines often seem to function as lineated prose, might or should, with some weighted syllables calling attention to themselves: ‘just before the end / fold…” Here crowded stresses are resolved into readability by the line break. This weighting and resolving of syllables seems to be the current norm for verse in English and Clark is as artful as anyone in this regard. I must often write the same way myself, but I also believe that prosody, by which I mean syllable and stress pattern, induces discoveries, of some order and of some relevance to meaning.

Let me investigate my own practice. I formed the lines below “by ear,” not as the result of an analytical strategy. I am unsure as to the degree with which I am able to claim “as mine” the music that is to be found here. Still revision that satisfies the ear is a consciously undertaken process for me as is condensation with respect to wording. Perhaps I don’t think enough about my sentences. With respect to meaning or metaphor, what I offer below is not in any sense studding. I cite it only to ask: Are there prosodic qualities other than lineation and condensed diction that mark the lines below?

The crowd milled on the docks. 
It seemed the cameras were live
and we sat in the gallery drinking cold white wine,
an albariño,
proud of our accomplishment.
                        (A North Atlantic Wall 48)
I seem to have written these lines without identifying my subject, and my purpose may remain obscure; but I do know that to my ear the play of the “o” sound in the first line resolves itself musically in the fourth and fifth lines in a fairly intricate way. I’d like to say a figured way. I find little of this quality in much of the poetry that I read today, and I do not mean simply a lyrical sonority. I mean by prosody some inherent arabesque that the language traces on multiple levels.

Silliman’s prosody
The Alphabet. The University of Alabama Press, 2008.

I find a highly charged prosody of the most intricate order curiously present on many pages of Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet, work that might be thought by some to reside at the postmodern extreme of an arc that contains Ezra Pound, Tom Clark and myself. The Alphabet is a long poem of twenty-four parts (1054 pages). Some parts like “Lit,” written largely in lines reach 60 pages or more. “Lit” contains twelve sections. Some are prose. The density of prosodic effect leaves little room for the reader to catch his or her breath. Rhyme and off-rhyme suture lines with adjacent lines and with subsequent verse paragraphs:

trust the next, it’s this,
the last, it’s that, thought
fattens, trapped in the head
abstraction’s presence left for dead.

Let’s stretch. To write, I sit in the shed
in a storm, she sent
recently her statute of limitation,
“you slime.” Plastic yellow bucket
gets my drift. Door slams.
                                    (“Lit” 268)
The semantic play between “fattens” and “stretch” or between “head” and “shed” as containers, metaphor and metonymy, sutures these lines in ways that suggest a world where it is impossible to catch a breath. The mind glides among syllables, placed with a convincing feeling for their weight, a two word sentence in a five syllable line, “Door slams,” concision that front rhymes with “’you slime.’’ Stresses are crowded without being flat, but readability comes only in patches of two or three lines at the most making the journey through a section of the poem hypnotic for its music and imagery, disturbing and disorienting on the level of semantics. meanings refuse to resolve:

Drumbeat of iambs in blood. I

will not make fun of the poem
chalked on a black board

500 times. Wipe that slate green,
           “Hidden” (The Alphabet, 61)

Resolution of sense if any, seems gratuitous, “wipe that slate green.” Is there a motive here other than verbal dazzle. Silliman’s dense prosody may only be a subjunctive to a method and that method may serve as antidote to some political realities. The method can seem formulaic, mechanical. This seems partly intention: “Poems are machines made of words,” WCW wrote. In the case of The Alphabet, the poem yields multiple instantiations of insightful diversion; energized wrinkles and folds mark quotidian perception.

I present three cases here, one a speech rhythm prosody with some of the faults and benefits of good prose, one a more entirely musical set of values, the third a baroque flippancy challenging the ability to envisage meaning. I need each of these.
. . .

Why am I writing what I have written today? Is it atonement? I owe no debts. I have no bonds circulating among my friends. Religion, family, and economics form a poetics of scarcity. In her teenage years, my sister kept notes on every film she saw, on every book she read. In that she exceeded her brother’s dedication to his art. He has avidly collected the poetry of many in his peer group. He now hopes to put his reflections in order? Hardly! He will weave with what falls into his hands.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Reflections on Mark Scroggins Red Arcadia

What is the value to me of the exacting demands that I place upon reality. Alienation and isolation are not goals. Power and acknowledgement are. Mark Scroggins poetry has the value of raising such questions. The text, with simple irony, sings the “brusque and gay / life of the entrepreneur, selling and buying  /  and getting laid .“ The entrepreneur, in contrast to the poet with his “sheaf of printout” – reading and seeking acknowledgement I suppose–achieves what the poet cannot. Our desires may be machine-made by the entertainment media, the jump-cuts of Scroggins’ text are maddening, madding, in its cultural reach from Hollywood to Ruskin. The idiom here is laced, like acid, with a derisive exactitude of observation. Are these words those of another melancholy Jacques, a flarfish Baudelaire performing bricolage with “truisms.” The notion of a “truism” is itself the favorite  idée fixe of the American middle classes. No original thought in the suburban tracts of Scroggin’s Florida. Those suburbs are memorialized apparently in the title, Red Arcadia, recently published by Shearsman, a lovely book. As the poet notes elsewhere in the collection, “airy and affordable Manhattan” is a fantasy in which we participate, reflexively, only through fantasy. Thus the “red” of an old Marxist paints your title and your titles that I have cited here, two poems, “Untitled” and “Goldfinches.” Each poem of Red Aercadia sutures images that the viewing public (including the poet and this reader) share because of our consumption of media, for instance, the effects of a mortar explosion as produced by Hollywood, “the patter of dirt / and the thud of clods / drizzling down over your head” from the first poem in the collection, “Dawn, New and Improved”). A Hollywood quality of production perhaps emulated by the nightly news in its embrace of entertainment values. And who in any case, any longer watches the nightly news? Scroggins is well-versed in in the discontinuities of the media landscape, his take echoing the pornographic and seductive qualities described by Jean Baudrillard than the hopelessly hopeful villages of Marshal McLuhan’s dream.

Friday, April 13, 2012

True translation

True translations seeks to avoid interpretation. It is “against interpretation” in Susan Sontag’s sense of the phrase. True translation may also be impossible (to evoke a conception drawn from the work of Walter Benjamin). The true translation of poetry in particular often seeks word for word and phrases for phrase equivalents and at the same time seeks to avoid the temptation to gloss difficulties in the home language by replacing these difficulties with paraphrases and circumlocutions in the receiving language. True translation abstains from wordings that are  partial explanations constructed to ease the difficulties of translatability. Efforts of that sort will tend to limit the varieties of readings found in the original and force a single construction on the text under an impulse toward coherence, felt more keenly by the translator perhaps than the original warrants. Some translations, usually considered faulty, wantonly attempt to improve upon the original rather than translating it with due respect for its integrity, destroying inherent qualities embedded in the original. Nonetheless, the best translation is likely to be among the best readings that the poem undergoing, let us say,  analytical translation, is likely to receive. The test of analytical and true translation is especially challenging in cases of a baroque torquing that creates word orders in the home language through ellipsis and displacement of modifiers that are impossible to duplicate in the receiving language or in cases where extreme fragmentation in the home language deprive the translator of the gloss context often allows. And beyond these difficulties that are semantic and partly syntactic, as we are addressing poetry, there are matters of sound and tone and the various approximations of these qualities in one language by entirely different qualities in another language. Are there word for word equivalents of irony? useful strategies that respond to qualities of the musical phrase that mark the original? These are some of the questions and topics that an investigation into true translation of poetry will raise.

I have had one comment that suggests I need to clarify my language in the above, so I add this footnote as I am proposing a collaborative round table on the topic of True Translation: I think generally as Benjamin does, that the original has a quality of translatabilty that calls for translation. So the too literal doesn't get it at all. Still once you have a grasp on what is translatable you don't fudge the difficulties by going the route of interpretation (which usually addresses explanation of meaning and thereby narrows meaning).

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tapies Tribute

Tapies tribute
Frío de limites // Antonio Gamoneda and Antoni Tapies

¿ES LA luz esta sustancia que atraviesan los pájaros?
En el temblor del sílice se depositan cuarzo y espinas pulimentadas por el vértigo. Sientes
el gemido del mar. Después,
frío de limites.

IS IT  light this substance that birds traverse?
In the quaking of silica are deposited quartz and splinters polished by vertigo. You feel
the moan of the ocean. Later,
cold of limits.

Tr. Donald Wellman

Friday, January 13, 2012

Saloua Raouda Choucair

My friend Nelida will be glad that I have discovered the art of Saloua Raouda Choucair, now 95, bedridden and pale, according to the reviewer, Kelen Wilson Goldie (ArtForum  Jan. 2012).  A retrospective at the Beirut Exhibition Center contains the exquisite Poem in Nine Verses, 1966-68, aluminum 11 3/8 x 8 5/8  x 2 3/4.” Goldie also cites Adonis’ concept that “language is the material presence of thought itself.”