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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).