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