Sunday, November 4, 2007

Shameless Self-Promotion

If you're going to be in New York City on November 10th, I'm reading with Daniel Magers, Alex Smith, and Steve Roberts at the Four Faced Liar on W. 4th St., between 6th and 7th.

The flier linked above will answer all of your questions.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Book reviews

I've started an account at, and have uploaded most of my library (my similar account at LibraryThing made this an easy task).

I'm not sure about the site's general usefulness — it's interesting to see what books others are reading, or have read. And on the occasion that the users have given stars to a particular book, it's not clear that the meaning of a starred review is consistent, even among an individual's ratings: do the five stars I gave to Zukofsky's "A" mean the same thing as the same rating I've given to Tina Darragh's on the corner to off the corner? And what about a similar rating for a book of critical essays, or a novel? Certainly, we don't read poetry and criticism in the same way – their "values" (for want of a better word) are different, and their functions, both social and personal, are different.

Needless to say, it's the reviews that are important, in that they at least allow for some explanation, if not outright defense. So I've decided to begin work on reviewing my entire library, with no formal plan for how to do so, and no projected date for completion. I procede with a sense of futility — there aren't many of these that haven't been reviewed countless times before, rendering my commentary frivolous and excessive in advance of the fact.

Oh well.

on the corner to off the corner
Tina Darragh
Sun & Moon Press, 1981

An exploratory surgery of sorts, Darragh's procedure, simple enough at first glance (the curious can vide her explanation in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book), interrupts lexicographical discoure — its aim at closure, stability, fixity — as it re-reads the page, treating keywords as clues, suggestions for a derive at lyric's limits. The result is a meaning altogether at cross-purposes to definition's drawing of boundaries, its regulation of voice and of tongue.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Still more on criticism

Steven Fama, in a comment on one of my posts on criticism, suggests that I should have mentioned Olson's Call Me Ishmael. Consider it an addition to my list, and heartily endorsed, along with Zukofsky's Bottom: On Shakespeare and Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore.

There are, of course, countless other books (and essays) that I could add. Fama points out an apparent blindness in my list to anything more than thirty years old; it stems not from a deliberate project or agenda on my part, but from the non-systematic and off-the-cuff manner in which I approached the task. And his observation calls other omissions to mind as well, particularly of art and film criticism. Certainly Arthur Danto's Art After the End of Art merits inclusion, along with P. Adams Sitney's Modernist Montage and much of Cahiers du cinema.

Of course, there's more that could be added — as before, I remain stubborn in my refusal to stand up and have my memory triggered by even the most basic "research" of looking at my bookshelf.

But instead, I'm curious what other books you would include on your own list(s). Comment in the appropriate space, if you're so inclined.

Monday, August 20, 2007


Something else occurs to me, with regards to a couple of texts listed in my last post. Though I included, without caveat or hesitation, Fliegelman's Declaring Independence, it might more properly be considered a work of cultural and/or social criticism, as opposed to literary criticism, which was the ostensible purpose of the post, at least considered in the context of the discussion that prompted it. Nonetheless, it's inclusion is merited, inasmuch as Fliegelman's discussion of Revolutionary-era rhetoric is relevant to an understanding not only of the non-literary texts (where "literary" is bounded according to traditional dictates) that fall within his scope, but also to an understanding of the literature contemporary with, and immediately following, the era in question. Furthermore, his study of evolving notions of authorship are, by virtue of the potential for their extension, relevant to present-day literary issues, particularly with regards to copyright, which I take to be the legal codification of both authorship and ownership of a text, where "text" is defined in its broadest sense, and where authorship and ownership may not always be coterminous.

The same post-facto qualification applies as well to my inclusion of Ruttenburg's book. Though she does discuss a range of literary texts, her focus is on cultural and social notions, rather than on the texts as text, at least according to traditional and/or conservative considerations of the term's limits. Furthermore, the chapter of her study that is most interesting (to my mind, of course) has virtually nothing to do with literary writing, per se, as it deals with the Salem witch trials, and the social upheaval and spontaneous reorganization thereof that attended that moment. Like Fliegelman, she is interested in rhetoric and text as manifestations of, and as a force operating within, the socio-cultural sphere, rather than with text as "pure art," or some such...

All of which is to point to a fourth question I should have raised earlier:
4. Given historical criticism, the boundary between literary criticism and certain forms of cultural criticism is, at least in cases where cultural criticism deal explicitly with concerns at the heart of notions of textuality / literature, often indistinct. The cases of overlap are certainly less common than in the other instances of overlap or indistinct boundary than I mentioned earlier, but they nonetheless do exist, and pose a relevant question (if not outright "concern") to a discussion of literary criticism that might seek to define the latter rigidly, or according to traditional definitions. That is, it's not possible to make a statement — at least not without breaching good faith — that all cultural criticism involves literary criticism in the way we might, in good faith, make such a claim about poetry always involving a critical act. Nonethless, certain instances do demonstrably trouble a simple identification...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Critical texts

In response to, and as an extension of, a discussion I recently had about the "art of criticism," I've present an unranked list of a baker's dozen critical works I consider to be important. I'm not going to provide extensive commentary at the moment (other than a few notes by way of conclusion), but may do so in the near future, if the mood so strikes; nonetheless, a general and unqualified endorsement applies in each case.

Patricia Crain. The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from The New England Primer to The Scarlet Letter.

Ulla Dydo. Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises: 1923-1934.

Umberto Eco. The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts.

Jay Fliegelman. Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, & the Culture of Performance.

Susan Howe. The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history.

Michelle Leggott. Reading Zukofsky's "80 Flowers".

Nathaniel Mackey. Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing.

Sianne Ngai. "Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust."

Marjorie Perloff. The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage.

Jerome McGann. Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism.

Nancy Ruttenburg. Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship.

Juliana Spahr. Everybody's Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity.

Jalal Toufic. (Vampires): An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film.
— - — - —

A couple of quick thoughts, each deserving of more attention than I've allowed for at the moment:
1. I've omitted from this list texts that might more properly be considered either/both statements of personal poetics or/and manifestoes. Thus, essays akin to (and including) Lyn Hejinian's "The Rejection of Closure" have been deliberately omitted. At the same time, drawing such a line reminds me that this is a difficult distinction to make, especially given the number of poets who work as critics, and the necessary act of criticism that accompanies, and is implied by, any creative act (in writing or any other art) or product thereof. In fact, some works on the list — those by Howe, Mackey, Ngai, Spahr, etc. — might be omitted along with Hejinian's; or hers might be included.

2. Given the extent to which aesthetic production constitutes a criticism (both negative, referring to that which is rejected, and positive, referring to that which is projected, by the text) of the work's precedents and contemporaries, the case could be made for including poetry itself. At the same time, a list so inclusive would risk meaninglessness, inasmuch as it would be distinguished from a list of important poetry only via the presence of works that cannot be considered poetry.

3. Another line that cannot be placed precisely and unproblematically: the distinction between ("pure") criticism and ("pure" — or "impure," if you're so inclined) theory. The thrust of Eco's career as a whole might suggest we consider the above work an example of theory, or of philosophy, even; the same may also be said of Toufic. Furthermore, a number of writers I reflexively describe as theorists are in fact engaged in criticism: Blanchot's reviews, certainly, and perhaps The Space of Literature, even if Writing of the Disaster might more readily be called "pure" theory (or philosophy — this distinction is similarly fraught). Similarly, it's worth recalling that Derrida's key essays, by and large, emerge from attentive readings of particular texts. In the end, a statement from note one might also be applied here: any act of criticism necessarily relies upon — whether explicitly stated or not — theories of criticism, of meaning, etc.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Celluloid Poetry (Moritsugu, Anger)

Here's the trailer for Jon Moritsugu's Mod Fuck Explosion (1994), a bizarre synthesis of teensploitation classics like West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause, with Quadrophenia, as filtered through the works of John Waters.

London, the female lead in Mod Fuck Explosion, is an obvious homage to the lead from Kenneth Anger's Puce Moment. The key scene in Moritsugu's film — where "key" refers to its aesthetic impact, if not its relevance to the plot — in which London walks through a room decorated entirely in raw meat, can be understood as a rewrite of portions of Anger's short piece.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


The best scene from Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville: Une etrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965).

Your voice, your eyes, your hands, your lips... Our silences, our words... Light that goes, light that returns. A single smile between us. In quest of knowledge, I watched night create day while we seemed unchanged. O beloved all, beloved of one alone, your mouth silently promised to be happy. Away, away says hate; Closer, closer says love. A caress leads us from our infancy. Increasingly I see the human form as a lovers' dialogue. The heart has but one mouth. Everything by chance. All words without thought. Sentiments adrift. Men roam the city. A glance, a word. Because I love you, everything moves. We must advance to live. Aim straight ahead towards those you love. I went toward you, endlessly toward the light. If you smile, it enfolds me all the better. The rays of your arms pierce the mist.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Anthological development

In his discussion of Poet's Bookshelf, the on-going series edited by Peter Davis, Ron Silliman quotes Fanny Howe's list of books that were "most essential to [her] as a poet." Unusual for such a list (at least in my experience of them) is her mention of several anthologies. Among a wide range of authors, Howe mentions "Jerome Rothenberg’s America: A Prophecy, The Negro Caravan, edited by Sterling Brown, Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, Moving Borders, edited by Mary Margaret Sloan, and Early Celtic Poetry. "

Howe's list reminds me of the importance of anthologies to my own early development as both a writer and reader of poetry. More than any single work, or individual, a few anthologies provided me with an understanding of the poetry's history, and opened the field, as it were, to its range of possibilities. The following books, acquired at the end of my high-school years, or (relatively) early in my college days, were indispensable; they are organized, to the extent that memory is accurate, in the order I acquired them.
Postmodern American Poetry, ed. Paul Hoover

Poems for the Millennium, Volume One: From Fin-de-Siecle to Negritude, ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris

From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry, 1960-1990, ed. Douglas Messerli

The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein

Poems for the Millennium, Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium, ed. Rothenberg and Joris

It is because of these books that I spent my freshman year at college identifying myself (yes, publicly) as a Dadaist, that I discovered "Language-oriented" poetry's strange and foreign-seeming surprises, that I first read Gertrude Stein. For the first time, I read poets who talked about writing in terms other than mere "personal expression," who thought poetry could, and should, do more than convey emotion. Excerpts in Messerli's anthology and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book inspired me to spend quite a bit of time seeking out Tina Darragh's on the corner to off the corner before finally finding it, what seemed an eternity later, at the Sun & Moon Press shop, where Douglas Messerli told me that it was the last copy, as he reminisced about making it. &c.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Still Moving: Richard Serra

It's tempting, in thinking about the Richard Serra show at MoMA, to talk about the pieces in terms of risk. Some works foreground their own toxicity, even if not as explicitly as does Gutter Corner Splash: Late Shift, and even though this foregrounding may not be intrinsic to the work, but rather to SFMOMA's warning signs. Others loom ominously over — and, in one case, directly above — the museum-goer, threatening a terrifying noise and even more devastating loss of limb and life. And in each case, there's a temptation, at once offset and encouraged by plexiglass partitions, not only to touch, but to push, perhaps as part of an investigation into their sturdiness and monumentality, both of which are offset by the sense of a more fragile equipose and balance upon which the sculptures are built.

In the large-scale pieces, this interplay of temptation and risk manifests itself as attraction and repulsion, where I mean these terms not in their merely aesthetic senses (i.e., desire and disgust), but in terms of physics. I am drawn closer to those corners where steel arcs overhead, but seem to be forced back. Where Serra's tendency to foreground experience seems to demand a personal, rather than objective response, this "forcing back" seems, paradoxically, not to be rooted in subjective fears, but in the physical property of magnetic repulsion, as inexorable as the earthward pull of gravity that allows for the carefully balanced dialectical synthesis of weightlessness and mass that allows for the work's existence.

Or, to put it another way, the experience of Serra's sculptures is an experience of activity, of interaction among and between objects.

Serra's "Verb List Compilation" reminds us that the art object exists as the result of actions performed on materials — a simple truth of any work of art, but rendered in the sculptures at simplicity's extreme, even if their scale comes, in turn, to complicate the notion of simplicity. The list, especially when drawn in relation to static objects, recalls the assertion made by Adam Smith and reiterated by Noah Webster, that all nouns were born as verbs. "[T]he verb," the lexicographer asserts, "is primarily the root of most words, probably of all — from the verb are formed nouns; and from these nouns are formed verbs." Elsewhere, he writes: "Motion, action, is, beyond all controversy, the principal source of words." Put into practice, this shows the lexicographer to figure action as meaning's foundation:
The human body is named from shaping, that is, setting, fixing, or extending, and hence sometimes, the general name of the human race. The arm is a shoot, a push, as is the branch of a tree. A board, a table, a floor, is from spreading, or expanding, extending. Skin, and bark are from peeling, stripping, &c.

This theory of language, which opens possibilities for thinking things otherwise, is especially relevant to the experience of Serra's art. And his list of verbs should have been printed, in a font as large as the pieces' scale, on the wall of one of the galleries. To recall the list is to foreground not only the pieces' genesis, but their presence. To see these works — and especially the larger ones — is to experience mass as energy, as force.

That is to say that Serra's pieces are not "action sculptures" in the way that Pollock's are "action paintings" — not the result of action, but actions performed and ongoing in the moment of their viewing. For their stability is rooted not in movement's opposite, but in its equipose, in tensions carefully set one against the other, such that the museum's title for the survey of its film collection, Still Moving, might have been better applied to these sculptures.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


The most difficult — and thus most compelling — of the poetic dance-scores in Mac Low's Pronouns are those in which the grammatical subject is "nobody."

27th Dance — Walking — 22 March 1964
Nobody does any waiting,
& nobody has an example.

Does nobody give gold cushions or seem to do so,
& does nobody kick?


& nobody's seeming to send things or's putting wires on things —
nobody's keeping to the news.

At least nobody ends up handing or seeming to hand snakes to people.

There's a level of punning at play here — "no body" engages in the physical acts described — but more importantly an interpretive difficulty. From the perspective of the dancer, the question of how to follow these instructions takes the form of an impossibility. On the one hand, "nobody kick[s]" could be represented via a dancer not kicking, doing anything other than kicking. And, from this angle, the instruction seems to open itself to a nearly infinite range of possibilities, proscribing only one action.

But how to distinguish, in performance and for an audience that may not have Mac Low's text at hand, an instruction like "nobody's seeming to send things" from an instruction that simply dictates the activity that is taking place? It is not enough to simply perform an activity other that "seeming to send things," as it does not embody the instruction, and thus does not interpret the instruction to the letter.

Of course, its possible to approach such an instruction as providing precisely such a degree, nearly without limit, of interpretive freedom, but the fact that these proscriptive instructions co-exist with prescriptive ones (stated in the positive rather than the negative) suggests that a clear distinction should be drawn between the two modes, in order to fully and truly perform interpretation...

Friday, July 13, 2007

Something else

In a comment on my last entry, Kasey rightly points out a connection — one I had not thought of myself — between the refusal of specificity I've been talking about, in texts by Mayer, Spahr, and Anderson, and Jackson Mac Low's Pronouns — A Collection of 40 Dances — For the Dancers (1964; reprinted w/ revisions in 1971 and '79). What strikes me, as I return to a set of poems I've not looked at in some time, is how differently (again) this refusal works in a different case.

— - — - —
The laws governing textual interpretation are the laws of an authoritarian regime which guide the individual [i.e., reader] in his every action, prescribing the ends for him and offering him the means to attain them.
— Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader

As scores for dances, the Pronouns take up what may be the most imperative and authoritarian of forms, one that demands that the reader conform his/her body to the will of the author. Where this would be loathsome to Mac Low, it is anathema to the text. Mac Low's demand — and, as Eco points out, the demand still exists, and in such terms — is that the reader "find some definite interpretation of the meaning of every line of the dance-poems they choose to realize." That is to say that we are dealing with an open text, and with a social relationship of a different order.

"Something" comes to trouble the "authoritarian regime" in the Pronouns. Through its indefiniteness, Mac Low performs a crucial refusal, presenting an interpretive problem, leaving the interpretation of that "something" up to the reader. As dancer, the reader is allowed to specify where the author does not, is given a "very large degree of freedom of interpretation," as Mac Low puts it. The word, then — and alongside "anyone," "whoever," and the verb "to seem" — as a sort of blank.

[S]ome damage something foolish,
& some seem to be generally like clocks are,
& some see danger
while letting something be made the same as something simple,
but some send a warm thing by spoon over a slow one.
— Jackson Mac Low, "20th Dance —
Going About Between and Through
Unserious-Seeming Goings-On."

The refusal of specificity in Mac Low's Pronouns does not lay social structure bare. That is to say that Mac Low's particular deployment of this refusal is not descriptive — a la Mayer's, Anderson's, and Spahr's similar refusal — of social arrangements. Rather, it is constitutive of new social organizations, both on stage and, more crucially, between author and performer/reader, in Mac Low's treatment of text as itself a performance not only of a dance, but of a social dynamic. To use Eco's terms, the refusal of specificity embodied in Mac Low's "some," "something," etc., works as an invitation, in this case to dance.

Leery of overstating the freedom afforded and created by such a text, Eco notes that this "invitation offers the performer the chance of an oriented insertion into something which always remains the world intended by the author." That is to say that the text always returns itself, so to speak, to the author, who remains "the one who proposed a number of possibilities which had always been rationally organized, oriented, and endowed with specifications for proper development." In light of these caveats, we might think the Pronouns — which are inseparable from Mac Low's poetics, and devoted to propositions of equality and democracy — in terms of mutual responsibility, in which deliberately "vague" terms and enthusiastic deployment of choices indicated with "or" create a dynamic and collaborative engagement in the production of meaning and the creation of an artistic work.

Who is saying an idea,
& whipping?

Then who is doing something with the nose or getting something

by attraction,
& who is making things new?
— Jackson Mac Low, "22nd Dance —
Saying Things as a Worm Would"

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The "something" thing

I did something to someone in one way so that he could do something to something, then I did the same thing to the same person in another way so that he could do something else with this same thing, then I did that thing a third time, this time to the thing in the same ways I had done it to the person and this time I gave the thing to the person and then I did it again to more than one of the things so he could do something to them in one way up to a certain point, then for the fifth time I did it to something that could be used to do something to the thing which was his and finally I did it for the sixth time to something in the other way so that it could do something with the thing:
— Bernadette Mayer, "Moon in Three Sentences"
0 to 9, no. 5 (Jan. 1969)

It is Mayer's refusal of specificity that interests me most. She opens with defamiliarizaton, by removing specificity to point towards underlying structure. We don't, upon reading this, know who did what to whom — and our uncertainty is underscored by the recollection that "I" is itself a shifter, that it points only towards the voice of who speaks it, rather than to a particular individuated consciousness or actor. And though the "I" is uncertain — though both its status as shifter and the prohibition against the intentional fallacy underscore its uncertainty — it is tempting to read this passage in terms of, if not as autobiography.

Mayer's refusal of specificity recalls (to my mind, at least) and extends upon the conclusion to Berrigan's sonnets, in which "Someone / is having a birthday and someone is getting / married and someone is telling a joke." And her play with, and effacement of, the autobiographical also calls out to Lisa Jarnot's own "Autobiography" (from Ring of Fire):
I didn't sleep with anyone for six months until I met X. While I was sleeping with Y I also slept with Y's girlfriend. While I was sleeping with Y's girlfriend I also slept with S and T. During the six months between sleeping with Y and sleeping with X I spent a lot of time with K. I never slept with K but J slept with K and Y's girlfriend and also with S. After leaving Y and before meeting X I didn't sleep with anyone for six months.

But in the beginning of "Moon in Three Sentences," we don't even know what was done: whatever action "something" points to can apparently be done both to people and to objects, but the term is complicated by the appearance of a "something else." There is, in fact, a Stein-ian play on the word "something" in Mayer's poem — it refers to objects and actions. "Thing" also refers to an action: "I did the same thing." It is as though Mayer points to the limits of the conventional, if not technical, definition of a noun as "the name of a person, place, or thing," reminding us that a thing can also be an activity, and perhaps suggesting we rethink the distinction between material object and action.

What we're left with at this point in Mayer's poem is a two-fold structural analysis, that examines grammar and syntax while it also reports on a set of interpersonal relationships. Because of the complexity of the poem, it isn't clear which of these levels of interpretation is to be taken as literal, and which as metaphorical: are we looking at grammar as though it were personal? Or is it the personal that, under scrutiny, reveals itself to be structured grammatically? Is there a difference? With such abstraction, does metaphor simply become a way of playing between to "levels" (but that term is too hierarchical in itself — "dimensions," maybe?) of meaning?

The poem's next section is less satisfying, inasmuch as it resolves these questions, provides an answer to the riddle at the same time that it reconstructs what has proceeded as riddle in the first place:
I brought you here to round this moon
I brought you round to hear this moon
I brought this moon round here to you
I brought you moons to round to here
I brought this here to round your moon
I brought this round to hear this moon.

But where the ambiguity of the poem is resolved, and where this resolution is a bit disappointing, the poem turns back in on itself, redirecting us in the final line to the beginning, and turning "Moon in Three Sentences" into a self-generating text.
Then I tried to explain what I had done so far.
The effect is to return us to the grammatical play, and to reassert the structure as primary, as that which underlies the specificity, reframing the resolution as an extension of this deeper structure, which is in turn positioned as an "explanation," despite the fact that it "explains" less, at least in terms of what a conventional understanding of "explanation" would allow us to expect, than that which follows it.

[See also my discussions of Laurie Anderson and Juliana Spahr, which deal with similar approaches in writing, and are, really, of a piece with this.]

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"At Night the States"

Not at all new — it's on Exact Change Yearbook, which Peter Gizzi edited a dozen years ago — but I've returned, by way of PennSound, to Alice Notley's 1987 reading of "At Night the States" (mp3).

And I'd never before heard the recording of her introduction to the poem, excised from the Exact Change version, in which she explains that the poem was her first attempt at anaphoric repetition, and that it is an elegy for Ted Berrigan. In this prefatory commentary Notley describes finding, in a writing process that proceeds from what becomes a stock phrase, a sense of possibility.

This is borne out by the poem: as it rushes past, almost too quickly, the phrase's meaning shifts, expands the potential of its signification, as Notley draws on the varying senses that attach themselves to the words that constitute it, and finds curious correspondences between states of mind and of the "Montana. Illinois. Escondido" that close, as "the states where what words are true are words, not myself."

[NOTE: My brief quotation of part of Notley's poem is based on the recording, and not on the print version. Inaudible, or only partially audible, elements of formatting (punctuation, line breaks, the Notley quotation marks) are not present for this reason.]

Monday, July 9, 2007

"Perhaps No One Will Notice Them"

"I had sweet company / because I sought out none"

As Kristin Prevallet notes, Helen Adam's collages are "strikingly simple." She writes:
They combine two images — a beautiful man or woman, and a creature. And this combination results in a ironic playfulness that teases the viewer to wonder: are these collages a form of self-portrait, a projection of this woman's deep fears mingled with her repressed desire?

For Prevallet, this simplicity must be read in the context of Adam's contemporary, Jess, whose collages create complex fantasias, interconnected and complex worlds that can only be read as allegory or as metaphor. That is, taken as a whole, a Jess collage cannot be interpreted as mimetic; it's closer to the allegorical narratives of Breugel the Elder's paintings of proverbs, or to Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights."

In contrast, aside from their surrealistic play with scale and with nonsensical juxtaposition, Adam's collages often imitate the quote-unquote mimesis of perspectival photography, even where they refuse to practice it. In a way, they can be regarded as fakes, closer to the use of composited landscapes in early photography, or to the practices of matte compositing or the techniques of Georges Méliès' fabulist cinema.

"Perhaps no one will notice them"

At the same time, there's nothing really simple about these, as Prevallet is well aware. In the second of the two pieces illicitly reproduced above, the caption contextualizes what is presented before our gaze; indeed, lacking the caption, the opposite interpretation would be available. And the text, which works alongside the image to evoke advertising copy, produces a complex tension that does not quite resolve itself. It initially works as a delightful critique of the fashion/glamour industry, inverting the importance of being seen, of being "noticed," of transforming one's self into the gaze's object. What might seem a bizarre manifestation of haute couture ("bats are the new black," or are "in for spring") is turned into a source of shame.

But this shame — this desire for one's unpleasant aspects to be obscured — is precisely that which advertising relies upon in its pitch. Adam's apparent inversion, which might almost be a critique, ends up recapitulating the logic of advertising, perhaps laying its mechanism bare, but no more so than do ads that hearken to, and construct, notions like the "heartbreak of psoriasis." That isn't to say that the latter meaning doesn't still imply critique, but that its a different form of critique. And it isn't entirely clear to me where we stand in relation to this message, what position it constitutes for its reader, or what meaning it produces for the image.

To complicate things further this tension is unresolved: the sense of shame implied by the caption is so thoroughly belied by the delight of the collage itself... Why wouldn't you want everyone to notice your bats?

Saturday, July 7, 2007


Like Juliana Spahr, whose brief discussion I mentioned before, Rob Stanton centers his reading of Peter Gizzi's A panic that can still come upon me (reprinted in The Outernational) on the prevalence — a use that seems to have become a study — of the word "if" in Gizzi's recent oeuvre.

As Stanton notes, Gizzi's use of the word in "Château If"
invoke[s] an ideal state, somewhere nearby in which poet, reader and world would be in perfect alignment, meaning would become transparent and true communication could take place
Similarly, Spahr's reading thinks this "beautiful 'if'" in terms of an opening of possibility, remarking on its effect — within consciousness, rather than merely the semiotic space of the text — is generative. The word's capacity adheres not only to meaning, but to a larger creativity that carries with it the potential to reshape the world in terms of, and by way of, imagination.

Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language figures "if" in precisely this way. Pointing perhaps at the activity of its generative dimension, Webster thinks the term not as conjunction, but as verb. And he argues for this conception of "if," comparing it to our use of the words "grant," "admit," and "suppose." To this end, the lexicographer establishes a parallel between "if John shall arrive in season, I will send him with a message" and its counterpart, "give John shall arrive; grant, suppose, admit that he shall arrive, I will send him with a message." His definition concludes by proposing "if" as prayer, as wish, as hope: "The sense of if ... is ... cause to be, let the fact be, let the thing take place."

At the same time, Stanton notes that there is a darkness to Gizzi's use of "if." He locates a tension in the irresolution of A panic's phrases, in their refusal to turn to the closure of "then," and in the uncertainty that attends Gizzi's use of the term. "If our wishes are met with dirt," he notes in A panic. But this tension, this irresolution, inheres in the word's meaning itself. Webster's second definition is cryptic — "uncertain or not" — but its illustrative quotation, borrowed from Dryden, clarifies: "Uncertain if by augury or chance." "If" points to what cannot be known, to what cannot be resolved with any surety.

Thus, the optimism of "if" is bound up in a sense of irresolution. Possibility, "if" reminds us, is always fraught with and complicated by the possibility, perhaps equal, of its failure, or at least of the hope not being answered. To read these together, to read "if" as embodying this tension, is to read it as a sign of contingency. "If" reminds us — as a conditional — that the world is interdependent, that this depends on that. That is to say, whatever follows "if" is "not absolute," that it, as is noted in Webster's Revised Unabridged (1913), "must exist as the occasion or concomitant of something else."

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Idea of North

Download Glenn Gould's Idea of North here. The piece, a documentary produced for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, consists of the voices of five people discussing the Arctic and sub-Arctic "northern third" of Canada.

Rather than presenting the interviews separately, Gould weaves and layers them, inventing and exploring a contrapuntal form derived from the composers Gould studied before he left live performance for studio art. In places, this is not particularly different from today's radio broadcasts, voices drawn, via mixing board, into a dialogue. Elsewhere, voices overlap into polyphony, into a babble from which distinct phrases emerge, are picked up by other voices, echo.

In its documentary relationship to testimony and to place, as well as the polyphony of voices, common ground is shared with Charles Reznikoff, Chris Marker, Charles Olson, Susan Howe, others.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Once trilobitten, twice

As always, Steven Fama provides comments (which see) that send me back into something I've said — and not seen — in an earlier post. This time, he responds to my too-brief commentary on Coolidge's poem, taking up the discussion of "torque" at Kasey's blog that returned me to the poem in the first place, and redirects torque to bear on the poem's sound, rather than its syntax and grammar.

In particular, he notes that the poem is built around rhythms, like drum-beats, in bursts of three, and connects this to the etymology of trilobite, "three lobed." And a surprise that the OED refers this etymology, in its gloss of the Greek λόβός, specifically to the earlobe, as though suggesting just such a way of reading the last line of Coolidge's poem.

We might extend this approach, shifting our attention from rhythm to tone. Thus, we'll notice that the poem's first line is similarly built around a repetition of three Os, each of which represents a distinct sound. The long o of code recurs in ohm, and twice in trilobite. Two of the words in the second line — a and the — have indeterminate/variable pronunciations, their doubling allowing for a total of three vowel sounds.

Given its lack of grammar, the first line does not invite a particular rhythm, suggesting that we stress its syllables almost evenly, allowing only for orange's second syllable to provide contrast. The "third line," itself broken into three (after Williams?), similarly resists determining vocal stress, but its visual "descent" points to the scansion of trilobite. And puns emerge, as trilobite's dactyl (evocative of another prehistoric creature) waltzes out to the cymbal (symbol?) crash of the terminal s.

Monday, July 2, 2007

What does trilobite do?

An untitled poem, from Clark Coolidge's Space (1969):
ounce code orange
trilobite trilobites

Of which Kasey writes:
Even in the absence of a clear grammatical structure, it is still difficult not to read even abstract linguistic assemblages of this sort on the model of normative syntactical connections between words. One might read the first line as three listed nouns in a series, or alternately one might treat ounce as subject, code as verb, and orange as object...

For whatever it's worth, I find it easier to make a "clear grammatical structure" out of the last line. While it initially seems a repetition of a noun, first in the singular and again in the plural, I read it as consisting of a singular noun and an intransitive verb.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A painful shadow

Sombra Dolorosa (dir. Guy Maddin)

Thursday, June 28, 2007


Short on time, once again. But nothing I have to say today could be as rewarding as a screening of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), directed by Todd Haynes and starring Barbie in the titular role.

The film plays with the high-camp rhetoric of made-for-television docudramas, noting in subtitles that the opening scene, of Carpenter's death, is "A dramatization," and employing the melodramatic voice-overs one would expect from the genre. The casting of Barbie points less to the (inconclusive) connection between the doll and eating disorders than to the ways Carpenter's celebrity status, and her image, reduced her humanity. Despite its own campiness, Superstar is a sympathetic portrait that takes Carpenter quite seriously as a performer, and that regards her death as a real tragedy.

[I should mention that this film — the screening of which is made possible by Google video — may not be available for long. Because Haynes did not legally acquire the rights to the music, Richard Carpenter was able to file a lawsuit and have the film pulled from distribution. I assume that this is still the case.]

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Audible breaks

Steve Evans points me in the direction of an article that allows for a more sophisticated analysis of Spicer's sounding of the line break in the lines "No / One listens to poetry" from "Thing Language."

Reuven Tsur, arguing against the received/conventional notion that the "delivery" (his word) of a poem must resolve line-break ambiguities by sounding either one interpretation or the other, explains the process by which a poet can read both the poem's line and its syntax simultaneously, allowing for the same unresolved tension that the page provides. He writes:
when the endings of the syntactic unit and the metric unit do not coincide (that is, when syntax is run-on from one line to the other), the reciter may indicate continuity and discontinuity at one and the same time by having recourse to conflicting cues.

In "Thing Language," the first of these cues is the prolonged pause between "no" and "one," which invites a grammatical interpretation, allowing the reader to imagine a dash or comma dividing clauses. Spicer introduces "conflict" with the second cue, irreconcilable to the first, which is the lack of vocal stress one would "naturally" expect to find on either "one" or "listens," particularly in that such an interpretation of the line would place it in direct contrast with the prior assertion that "no one listens." The combination of these two allows the ambiguity present on the page to reside in the sounded poem.

Conventional speech, in normal circumstances, would of course work to resolve precisely the ambiguity in which Spicer's sounding traffics. For Tsur, this constitutes a "rhythmical" approach to reading, an alternative that combines elements of the metrical (= following the pattern of the line) with the grammatical (= following the sentence). And in thematizing this rhythmical sounding, Tsur extends the metaphor of conflict quoted above, regarding it as an "organized violence" waged against speech. As he writes, "continuity and discontinuity can be suggested at one and the same time by using conflicting phonetic cues, thus committing 'organized violence' against speech processing."

Tsur's figuration of the sort of "delivery" (to use his terminology) Spicer employs as "violence" is interesting, not least for the fact that it highlights the uncomfortable relationship between a metered use of language and the spoken version. Is it possible to extend this notion into our reading of the type of line-breaks characteristic of Spicer's work? We could approach the matter by examining the ways that the term "line-break" suggests, if not a "violence," a trauma performed on the conventions of written language...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Recorded Language

[A couple of quick thoughts as I listen to Jack Spicer's reading (July 14, 1965) of Language, once broadcast on Susan Howe's Pacifica radio program, and recently made available on PennSound.]

The material that opens the program comes from the Bastille Day talk Spicer gave in Berkeley (reprinted as "California Lecture: Poetry and Politics" in Peter Gizzi's House that Jack Built). Mark Weiss has edited the recording to organize it around the issues Spicer raises with regards to community and society, and the distinction, somewhat provisional and uncertain, that he makes between the two. Weiss' editing of the recording has a further effect: the audience — central to Spicer's concerns in both the discussion and the poems that follow — is effectively erased, except in one instance in which they respond with laughter. Spicer's assertions about audience are stripped of complexity, as lively discussion is reduced to lecture.

— - — - —

The line break that differentiates "No one listens to poetry" from "No / One listens to poetry" in "Thing Language" is sounded, and heavily, but with a flat tone that does not diminish the ambiguity that resides in the latter line, which fluctuates on the page between "No one listens" and its negation, "No — One listens." I've tried, when teaching the poem, or showing others the complexity and thoughtfulness of Spicer's line breaks, to bring this flatness to the second iteration/variation, but am unable to do so. The break, in my own sounding, always punctuates, and the line comes out firmly as the latter iteration, an assertion that one does in fact listen to poetry.

— - — - —

Elsewhere, the poem's voicing resolves ambiguity: Spicer sounds "constructs" in "Constructs / Of the imagination / Of the real canyon and the heart's / Construct" with the accent of the second syllable, as "con-STRUCTS," as verb. On the page, the word fluctuates between syllabic accents, between verb and noun.

— - — - —

Scarcely a section goes by without producing differences between the page and the sounded poem. Most are of little consequence ("compared with" as "compared to"), but the difference, in "The deer / Your heart and guesses, blandly seek water," between printed "blandly" and sounded "blindly" seems deeply significant.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Not name its names

At Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum provides a textual passage from which he has stripped all the nouns, adjectives, and verbs.
My most was with, who'd been, of, to. Was at the, and only was that he not be. I with her by for an. What through was her — she'd as a — and her. During that, she never a, and in — all the today don't. She was a. Like many from, she how to be, and it was of the. I can why her.

This text is a response to — and is made from — a comment by William Katz, who apparently claimed that contemporary entertainers do not, in fact, use these parts of speech. While the purpose of Pullum's text is to lambaste Katz's hyperbolic claim — itself intended as a criticism of the allegedly poor grammar of talk show guests — Pullum's text also points to the workings of the parts of speech that are left. (He notes that he's "cheated" a bit in retaining words that arguably constitute nouns and verbs, including auxiliary verbs and pronouns...)

A couple of things are interesting here. In the cases where a phrase's syntax most closely resembles conventional grammar, some words' grammatical functions change, based on their relative position alongside other of the words. In "I can why her," why becomes, through the presence of the auxiliary verb can, something like a verb, as it occupies a position in which we would expect to find a verb. Reading this in basically the same way we read Stein, we can associate — even if only vaguely — action with why, reading the sentence to suggest perhaps interrogation as to intent or cause. The possessive pronoun my in "my most was with" has a similar effect, thrusting most into a provisional noun-status.

As is also the case in Stein's work, the Pullum's version of Katz's text points to the functions carried by these words, which often do not point — or at least not in the ways nouns, verbs, and adjectives do — to the world of things. The text calls out to Stein's notion, in "Poetry and Grammar," of "the need of making it be a thing that could be named without using its name," and of a writing that is not mimetic, but instead works as a kind of "intellectual recreation."

Friday, June 22, 2007

Another quick one while I'm away

Also recently made available through PennSound is Ted Berrigan's 1981 reading of the complete Sonnets at New Langton Arts in S.F. Though the recording has been available for quite some time, it has now been broken up into individual tracks, which makes it easier for the casual listener (or a serious one who is short of time) to work with.

Out of time

In lieu of a real post, I'll just put up a link to Susan Howe's Poetry Programs from Pacifica Radio, recently put online by PennSound. I'm not sure if this is an exhaustive list of broadcasts — could there have been only four?

Patrick Durgin has already recommended the Reznikoff episode, so I'll add that the one featuring Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein is also worth a listen. It consists of both readings and discussion, and has Bernstein providing an excellent explanation of the politics of normative language use.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


I'm interested in the fact that there are two (relatively) recent poetic projects that deal with the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index (MMPI): Katie Degentesh's The Anger Scale and Craig Dworkin's "Legion II." A set of companion-pieces, in a way, each of which takes a different approach to the test's true/false statements: the former builds poems by Google-sculpting the statements; the latter provides responses, but subtracts the statements themselves.

Dworkin's piece, then, calls attention to what is absent: we are presented with a string of affirmative and negative responses, punctuated by slight elaborations, many of which suggest exasperation at the statements' stupidity or obstinance. And if the questions' absence is disorienting, it points to the proprietary hold of the licensing corporation: Dworkin's prefatory material remarks that the poem itself, taken as a whole, constitutes a "response" to a suppressed text, in which the test's statements were recombined into a lyric voice.

If our attention is pointed outside the text in Dworkin's poem, it comes to bear on Degentesh's book by way of paratextual materials that resonate with my discussion of flarf's complexity. The book is described so variously by its blurbs that one might almost wonder if they refer to the same text: two of the pre-reviewers playfully evoke prophesy (a central theme in the book), and a third notes a mixture of the "comic and provocative." Though darkness and violence inform these comments on the book's humor, Juliana Spahr brings this aspect to the forefront, describing a "scary" and "uneasy" book with "complicated politics."

Obviously, more needs to be said about these texts — I've not even gotten in from their outsides yet!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Keep Watching the Sky

"Books are not dispersed but assembled." Georges Perec's "Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One's Books" identifies key problems in the classification, assembling, and arranging of one's books. Ideas are proposed and abandoned, one after another, their limits reached; books are instead meta-classified in terms of their relative ease of classification. Though "we would like to believe that a unique order exists" — one that is not only unique, but ideal, such that it "would enable us to accede to knowledge all in one go" — we instead resort to arrangement's opposite, hoping "that order and disorder are in fact the same thing, denoting pure chance."

And, in a belated follow-up to Perec's analysis, Anne F. Garréta has proposed a few principles according to which one's library might be arranged. Though, unlike Perec, she goes so far as to devise concrete systems for organization, her essay shares with his an interest not in classification itself, but its limits. This is evident in her fanciful principles, most of which resist the universalizing and rationalizing impulses of, say, the Dewey Decimal system, and share more, in the end, with Sei Shōnagon's idiosyncratic organizational schemata.
— books in which one encounters whales;
— books in which not even the shadow of a whale is to be found;
— books from which have disappeared, inexplicably, the whales one imagined there.
Each of Garréta's principles — ten in all — amounts, in the end, to an imaginative way of articulating the et cetera against which all classificatory systems necessarily run, despite their efforts to the contrary.

Nina Katchadourian's Sorted Book project enacts a further way of thinking organization. Rather than categorizing books according to similarities of content, Katchadourian groups books by their titles, treating them as fragmentary phrases which can be arranged more or less syntactically. The library, then, becomes a re-combinatory literary work unto itself — a sort of cento.

• Books are grouped into a summary or loose interpretation of another title:
"King Lear / Old Age is Contagious, But... / If I'm in Charge Here, Why Is Everybody Laughing?"

• Sometimes one title comes to define another:
"Cindy Sherman / A Harlot High and Low."
"The Male Nude in Contemporary Photography / The Naked Ape."

• Other groups work as highly paratactic poems, or shot-by-shot accounts of a film:
"A Day at the Beach / The Bathers / Shark 1 / Shark 2 / Shark 3 / Sudden Violence / Silence."

The most interesting of Katchadourian's groupings finds titles placed into their own systems of classification, such that the first title provides a rubric for gathering those that follow: "Tales of Unnatural and Natural Catastrophes / Dante's Inferno / The Flight of Icarus." "Kinds of Love / Ecstasy / Sensation / Distemper." "The Secret Language of Dreams / Fences and Gates / Queues, Rendezvous, Riots / Picnic, Lightning / Swimming Pools." Where most organizational orders are imposed from without — particularly in the cases where order relies on preconceived classes of knowledge (as is the case with the Dewey Decimal system) or genre — these strange and provisional categories are especially interesting in that their schemata emerge from within, and are dispersed within, the field to be classified.

["On Bookselves" by Anne F. Gerréta was published in The State of Constraint: New Work by Oulipo, one of the three volumes bound by Athanasius Kircher's "secret knots" as McSweeney's 22.

Perec's essay is, of course, included in
Species of Spaces and Other Pieces.]

Some noises

Steve Evans, whose new-ish Lipstick of Noise takes its cue from the ubiquitous mp3 blogs to present readings of single poems, has made a master-list of the audio files he's included to date. In each case, the link goes to an entry on the poem that provides enough context to increase the level of fascination afforded.

Some of my favorites:
• Elizabeth Willis. "Kiss Me Deadly."
• Bernadette Mayer. "Catullus 42." (Mayer: "probably the only time you'll hear a real translation of this poem")
• Jackson Mac Low. "Feeling Down, Clementi Felt Imposed Upon from Every Direction."
• Charles Bernstein. "Solidarity is the Name We Give to What We Cannot Hold."
• Tina Darragh. "Collective Lament for Banishing Animals from History."
• Joseph Ceravolo. "Drunken Winter." (Ceravolo's poem goes by so rapidly, I can't follow its shifts)
• Peter Gizzi. "A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me."
• Brian Kim Stefans. "The Umm-Uh Poem."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


I don't have much to say about it, other than to point it out, but I'm really fascinated by the move Zukofsky makes towards the end of "A"-12, where he lists all the projects he never completed:
These are some things I wanted
To get into a poem,
Some unfinished work
I may never finish,
Some that will never be used anywhere

And after "getting it into the poem," in a manner of speaking, he gives it to his readers: "Anybody's welcome to it. / Take: a raft of stuff."

This strange and inclusive — and generous — move is predicated by, and extends, a stanza-long expression of fatigue that, despite lacking the crucial sense of disgust, resembles the similar one I mentioned yesterday in Deer Head Nation.
I don't seem to read books any more
Tho I suppose actually
I read them all the time.
I don't read the newspapers
Tho once a week I seem to spend a day on them —
As I did today —

— - — - —

Also: after my too-brief discussion of Sianne Ngai's "Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust" yesterday, I linked to two of the texts she addresses: Kevin Davies' Pause Button and Deanna Ferguson's Rough Bush. Find 'em to your right.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Nautical homophonic puns (a flarf primer)

Alex Smith wrote in the other day to ask if I'd be willing to write a bit about flarf, as I've mentioned it a couple of times, both here and in conversation with him. I should probably begin with a list of caveats, the most significant of which is that I don't speak as a representative of flarf. Also, and as such, I'm not sure that I can offer anything that hasn't been said before, so I'll begin with a list of articles that might better perform the task at hand. It's probably best — though not necessary, per se — to read at least the first of these before continuing with my commentary, even if that means that the need for this blogpost is effectively negated.

"The Flarf Files," compiled by Michael Magee

"Jacket Flarf feature: Introduction," by Gary Sullivan

"The New Pandemonium: A Brief Overview of Flarf," by Rick Snyder

Mainstream Poetry, a blog of flarf poetry

— - — - —

Alex's inquiry hinges on — or opens with — a question of whether flarf is "bullshit," and this seems like an interesting enough avenue deeper into the matter. Of course, there are multiple ways the question might be taken: it could be read to get at whether Flarf, as a movement, is nothing more than "marketing" (a charge that has, as Gary Sullivan notes, been leveled against it). But I presume the question to get at a more fundamental issue, which is whether flarf is mere play, or worse, a joke played on the reader, or on poetry itself. Or, in contrast, if it implies a seriousness of purpose.

As has been often noted (e.g. in the official creation myth), flarf began as, if not bullshit, a joke played by Gary Sullivan on This origin survives in what might be identified as its central aesthetic principles, which have been variously described as: a "studied blend of the offensive, the sentimental, and the infantile" (K. Silem Mohammad); as something like camp, but "more awkward, sumbling, 'wrong'" (Gary Sullivan); as "a kind of corrosive, cute, or cloying, awfulness" (Sullivan again).

Nontheless, the statements in "The Flarf Files" and elsewhere indicate an underlying, if varied, seriousness. And it's when we approach the movement (or "movement," if you prefer) from this angle that it's at its most rich. Rick Snyder, writing of K. Silem Mohammad's Deer Head Nation, notes that the book can be interpreted — if not unproblematically — as an "attempt to undermine the legitimacy of American aggression by placing it in some fantastic landscape, a liminal dystopia likely culled from the internet," and remarks that it "present[s] a type of inchoate, violent rage [...] against the incoherence, idiocy, and violence exemplified by American domestic and foreign policy." This is paralleled in Magee's suggestion that flarf — or at least his own strain of it — is written under the sign of Frederick Douglass' admonition, that "at a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument is needed." Magee figures his own "scorching irony" in terms of an "interrogat[ion of] dumbness, ridiculousness, stupidity," and suggests the need "to work undercover in the middle of it, to pretend to be it if necessary, all the while reporting back to the reader."

Of course, not all flarfists describe the work performed by their aesthetic in terms of this aggressive "scorching irony," this slash-and-burn form of critique. Nada Gordon has suggested that "at least some 'flarf'" — and I presume this to mean her own — "is not about irony at all, but about pathos" and empathy, about the "recognition of a universal pathos: 'aren’t we all a bunch of fools, and isn’t that funny? and bittersweet? and fucked up?'" Snyder finds Gordon's V. Imp, and her writing in general, marked by "desire to maintain intimacy even in the face of increasingly a de-humanized world." A similar approach marks Magee's My Angie Dickinson, which works on the surface as a play between the high and low cultures of the two Dickinsons to which its title refers, but which its author describes as engaged in a practice of "dis-orientation and re-orientation" that works in part — through "shock, bewilderment, excitement, [and] pleasure" — as a rescue of Emily Dickinson's work from her readers' "pieties," which frequently threaten to reduce the poetry and render it precious.

— - — - —

[I'm not finished yet, and am already aware of certain failures in this post, some of which may be fatal. I itemize them here as a further set of caveats for the wary reader.
• I've only referred to a small segment of the "body of flarf." What is worse, I've over-represented the movement's male presence.
• I've risked misreading flarf's collectivist origins as a form of homogeneity, effacing distinctions between different strains of an aesthetic movement that is, as all are, in fact marked by a sometimes contentious diversity of approaches, perspectives, opinions.
• I've omitted reference to the tactic of Google-sculpting. This, though, is partially deliberate, as the practice is often too-closely identified with flarf, to the extent that non-flarf writers who use Google are forgotten or misunderstood as flarfists.
This in mind — yours and mine — I continue...

— - — - —

The "scorching irony" of certain strains of flarf might be considered (and I think has been already) in terms of Sianne Ngai's notion of a poetics of disgust.
A poetics of disgust would begin with this basic position: that there are at least as many things to turn away from as things to be drawn to and that this repulsion is worth thinking about seriously.
Put into practice, this entails a form of criticism: "not a moving toward the object, either to possess it or to be possessed by it, to engulf it or to be engulfed by it ... but a turning away," which is attended by a marked inarticulacy, the expression (= "pushing outward") of (as Ngai puts it) "language's raw matter (flow, gush, outpouring; inarticulate sound; 'something between a groan and a cry'; ow, help, no; woo, braah; smiles and shouts)."

An expression of repulsion and fatigue seems key to the poems in Deer Head Nation, and particularly to the opening of "False / Vodoun Democracy": "I can no longer fight the delusions of the majority." Here, the poem finds itself at the limit of critique, exhausted, but no less disgusted, by the state of the world. Elsewhere, poetry is shown to have been rendered impossible, as critique, as articulation, as thoughtful interpretation of the world:
my hobbies include

kidding myself into believing I am a poet,
trying to write: 'ack ack a dack
dack dack a ack ...'

In these failures, these poems demonstrate limits — both of the ability for Ngai's poetics of disgust to account for them, and of Snyder's assessment of Deer Head Nation as expressing "a type of inchoate, violent rage." As I read them, the poems also trouble Snyder's attempt to provide a clear line demarcating the difference between Gordon's and Mohammad's projects. In their reliance on the inchoate and inarticulate, a sense of mourning attaches itself to the failure of reasoned discourse, and of the difficulty of finding an alternate mode of articulation or expression. In considering the apparent cynicism of Deer Head Nation, and the failure of discourse the poems address, we might think here of Magee's reminders of the ease with which the state "co-opt[s] the language of dissent" to collapse its meaning. We might further extend this by substituting, as I have above, reasonable and reasoned discourse for dissent, noting that Magee's estimation of the current situation isn't dark enough, ack ack a dack.

But I'm reluctant, in the end, to describe Deer Head Nation (or other of flarf's most interesting works) as merely cynical. The sense of mourning is, when all is said and done, far too pronounced for cynical "cool." That's not to say that cynicism isn't part of the equation, but that it doesn't stop there; the poems' multiple and shifting valences include cynicism as only one of a gamut. Take, as perhaps the most pronounced example, the opening lines of "Puppy Craziness":
what we all really need is love
in these horrendous times
in this toxic atmosphere

Cynicism works by way of the poem's ironic distantiation, in its recognition that the solution suggested within these lines is woefully and painfully inadequate. It continues to work through the poem's lyric reiteration of the phrase "what we all really need," and in the increasingly trivial objects to which it attaches itself as it reminds us of the ways that the word "need" has been abused, torqued out of its meaning, by consumer society. And the ways that notions of love (and peace, which is integral to Deer Head Nation as a whole) have themselves been similarly reduced. The old ways of thinking, the poem reminds us, are inadequate; it cannot venture what might suffice to take their place.

The poem points to another inadequacy, as well: the failure for trite phrases like "horrendous times" and "toxic atmosphere" to account for the realities presented by the contemporary world. Again, poetry finds itself run up against its defamiliarizing task, its charge to provide some route towards understanding, and it is as though it cannot find an alternative, choosing instead to turn the vocabulary towards irony.

At the same time, cynicism and ironic distantiation are held in tension, if not at bay, by what the poem doesn't ever really shake: a fundamental pathos, a sense of hope, or at least a wish, perhaps (knowingly) futile, that, were it even available, love might somehow be enough, that a tool "which greatly reduces human error" could in some way suffice, that repairing the current scarcity of "information that will give us / an intellectual understanding" will do the trick.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Critical question

A question came up in conversation the other day, and I wasn't able to answer it: whether the act of criticism, as performed by a scholar or critic, is the same as a comparable act performed by a poet.

In an aim towards answering this question, we might consider the matter from two perspectives: first, whether there are differences of goal; second, whether there are differences of approach. Again, I'm not sure I know how to answer the question, or, in the end, if it even matters much, but I thought it might be an interesting exercise to map out the terrain just a bit, in thinking-out-loud fashion.

If we approach this from the matter of the end-aims of the projects, we might find some differences, arguably crucial. Certainly, both the poet and the critic are engaged in the fundamental business of criticism, which I take to involve investigation, the act of coming to a deeper understanding of the poetic text. The argument could be made that the critic ("pure" critic?) has a different goal for this understanding of the text than does the poet: where the latter's investigation is directed, perhaps, towards a deeper understanding of her/his own practice, the "pure" critic's goals might be thought in terms of scholarship, or (to place abstract "scholarship" within its material context), an inquiry into the cultural production of meaning.

Certainly, the poet's critical inquiry resembles that of the "pure" critic — for examples, vide Pound's inquiries into the history of poetics, Lyn Hejinian's philosophical investigations, Bruce Andrews' scrutiny of the economic and social relations embodied by textual production, Susan Howe's archaeology of American literature and examinations of the work of Emily Dickinson, Olson's reading of Melville, and so forth, ad infinitum.

In the end, I'm not sure I can answer the question any better than I could when I began writing this; I'm instead hoping others will weigh in with some opinions. I am willing to venture a few more thoughts — less well-formed than even the above — on the matter, not least of which is that I tend to feel a bias, somewhat unexamined, in favor of the poet, or the poet-critic, over the "pure" critic.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Descriptive tone

One of the things that has interested me most about Juliana Spahr's writing since I was first introduced to it is the particular and peculiar tone she strikes. It's not a poetic tone, per se — or, to be more precise, it's not a "poetic" tone, one that gestures towards poetry as it is typically or traditionally imagined.

Though I could locate a position for it with respect to "language-centered" writing, I'm not quite sure how to characterize its own peculiarities, the particular approach Spahr takes — through this tone, or with it — to the world. We could call it "descriptive," did the term not suggest an especially florid and lurid use of modifier and metaphor. So I'm tempted to propose "analytic-descriptive" or some such.

What characterizes — and is at stake in — this tone is Spahr's resistance to specificity. Much is shared here with Laurie Anderson's account of walking, as I described it here. Anderson facilitates an examination of walking that renders it foreign, that underscores its relationships to falling and catching. Furthermore, those terms extend themselves — as metaphoric and allegorical language — into dimensions (faith, defeat, etc.) that aren't nominally or ostensibly relevant to the activity of walking as we conventionally and habitually practice it.

Spahr's account of balance, from Fuck You - Aloha - I Love You, works similarly:
It is balance that tells us to keep
our head up and the hips and
knees well flexed.

It is balance that keeps the elbows
bent slightly and the fingers
pointing forward.

In balance, one tries to realize if
the weight is too far forward and
if so one presses downward with
the finger tips and raises the head.
Or if one realizes that the weight
is too far backward then one
presses downward with the heels
of the hands and lowers the head.

Over the course of Spahr's poem, balance becomes a way of thinking the complexity of social interactions, to participate in culture, a "group enterprise" that "requires the cooperation and teamwork of we who are in formations," and in which "innumerable combinations may be developed."

In both Anderson's and Spahr's writing, our focus is shifted away from our habitual attention to specifics, and over to the underlying structures that govern the interactions and relationships described. If the effect is a defamiliarization, it allows for a renewal of perspective, such that the quotidean is made redolent with meanings. This tone — flatly descriptive, "cool," the language we might find in technical writing, characterized in part by the neutral "one" — makes it so. So that the world is found to be haunted by diverse causes and effects, by unseen forces. And that action might be drawn into relation, with world and others.

Another way to think this — and it may demand a revision of the term I've proposed — is to return to Stein. Though the term "description" recurs throughout her work, I'm thinking here of Stein's account, in An Acquaintance With Description, of "studying in description." We might twist Stein's use of the term "studying" away from its painterly sense, pointing it instead towards the notions of research, experimentation, or analysis. Instead — and because neither Anderson's account of walking nor Spahr's writing in general emphasize the visual — we might revise Stein's practice of "look[ing] ... really look[ing]," such that its attention is re-focused on "being ... really being."

Friday, June 15, 2007

Quick post

Time is tight for a few days, so I'll just present a couple of quick and interesting links, some of which are new, and others of which are not.

Jack Spicer reading The Holy Grail, extracted from the Vancouver Lecture of June 15, 1965. (It's nothing new, if you've already heard the lecture, but it's a convenient way to get to the poems themselves.)

Susan Howe's shows on Pacifica Radio in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Some flarf-esque translations of Rilke, by Brian Kim Stefans.

Kenneth Goldsmith singing philosophical and/or critical works over the music of others. "Kenneth Goldsmith Sings Roland Barthes," which sets the concluding section of Mythologies to an instrumental jam by the Allman Brothers, is the best.

A few of Stan Brakhage's lectures on film, from the very early 1970s.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A blank stare — mysterious and blank

Steven Fama again writes in with some incredibly generative comments on my reading of the stroboscopic blank in Bruce Conner's REPORT. I have a couple of quick thoughts in response...

To begin, I want to return — apropos of Fama's comments — to the question of the physiological and emotional resonances carried by this passage of Conner's film. Between my posts and Fama's, we've read it as shocking, anxious, and hypnotic. As a heartbeat that quickens and stops. And Fama notes further that a mystery attends this "scene," writing: "Is the 'picture' ever coming back? Maybe this concern also creates anxiety, at least in some watching the film. Of course, this effect would be strongest on the first viewing." There's nothing much I can add here, really, except to note that he's right, and that much of the film's tension does in fact hinge on this dynamic within the passage in question. And to say that this sense of mysterious anxiety continues to attend the stroboscopic blank even on repeat viewings. Even after we know that the "picture" does in fact come back, it seems to take too long.

But this raises another emotional response — one we haven't mentioned — that is at play here. The fact of the matter is that this passage is also boring. It lasts for what seems an eternity, and that it compells me to stare deeply into it (though this may not be a universal response), makes it feel longer than it in fact is. And this boredom is integral to the particular anxiety produced by the film: we don't merely wonder whether the "'picture' [is] ever coming back" — we fear that it won't, and that we're suddenly watching something we didn't plan for. And it's frustrating, not only because nothing is "happening" (except, of course, in the audio track), but because what we want to see — the moment of national tragedy — is withheld from us. In a sense, the film's use of the blank, already a refusal of representation, is a refusal of our desires, perverse as they may be.

What is more, this sense of boredom, and of frustration, works throughout the film. Footage, chopped-up and repeated, works to frustrate forward progress, not only of narrative, but of physical movement. There's a resemblance to Gertrude Stein's use of "repetition," her confounding insistence on a continual present that, here, becomes ominous. And the Presidential limo begins its fateful journey, turning perhaps onto Elm St., perhaps onto one of many that lead — have already and irrevocably lead — to Elm St. And, though the voice-over's narrative continues unimpeded, the footage begins again and again, advancing only a few frames at a time. It staggers, and it reiterates the cruel inevitability of the past, almost to the point that the historical narrative, violent as it is, seems a relief. Later, the First Lady begins a walk — only a few steps — towards the ambulance that carries her husband's corpse, the uncanny analogue to the limo with which we began. Already "former," she never arrives, being blown back to the beginning of her movement, even as she comes closer to closing the distance with each successive attempt. Repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

— - — - —

If we read, as Fama suggests, the stroboscopic and blank section of REPORT as containing a mystery, it's an interesting one. Certainly, we can read the JFK assassination — and either or both Conner or/and Fama may be pointing in this direction — as a murder mystery. Further, where the notion of mystery resonates on this level, it finds itself in direct and fascinating conflict with the fact that, whether the "picture" ever comes back, we know, and all too well, what happens next. A strange mystery, indeed!

[Read Fama's comments in full here, and my original post there.]

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Juliana Spahr — The Transformation

[I've already written a bit about Juliana Spahr's newest book, but have been meaning to get around to a longer post on it...]

Juliana Spahr's "barely truthful" memoir, her "catalog of discomfort," The Transformation, locates its subject, the self, within what Joan Retallack calls "the chaotic interconnectedness of all things, the dynamic pattern-bounded indeterminacy in which we find ourselves." Here, subject positions are collective and collaborative; they are often uncertain and unstable.

As Spahr reminds us throughout The Transformation, thinking such a subjectivity necessitates a re-imagining of language, that it may itself be transformed to articulate the sort of complexity that is at stake here. Spahr's work contorts itself away from convention in order to model interrelationship. But it becomes clear, over the course of the text, that these strategies are only partialy adequate to the task.

What is at stake is the dismantling and opening up, à la the projects of first Levinas and later Derrida, of a pervasive "expansionist language" that "often absorbed in order to kill out ... local languages," that "was not innocent," that works alongside "the coercive economic dominance of the governments that spoke [it], the military might of the governments who spoke [it], and the technology industry and its alliances with the entertainment industry." Within such a language, it is impossible — Spahr's text reminds us of this throughout — to see things correctly, to understand self or world in anything other than reductivist terms. Thus language's transformation.

Thus the memoir's narrative "I" gives way to a "they" that works twofold, pointing towards a model of community without allowing the reader to forget that the speaker's subject position is marked by an outsider status that is no more innocent than the expansionist language the text disrupts. (Spahr deals with her time spent living and teaching in Hawai'i.) At the same time, it points towards a model of community, even if that community is first and foremost a domestic and hermetic one. Over the course of the book, this "they" splits, becomes various and multiple, reunites again, suggesting that "they" are not a homogenous "them."

Thus, too, the refusal of the habitual vocabularies that fail — and in their habits fail to acknowledge the failure — to account for the complexity of the activity of being's interrelation, whether conceived in ethical, political, ecological terms. Native, Hawai'i, United States, America: to fall into habit, to use these words habitually, is to risk naturalizing these terms, effacing their history and presuming a stasis that Spahr's book constantly places under erasure in its continual emphasis on complex non-teleological change as truth.

The effect is a defamiliarization. We know what is meant when "they" talk about "the island in the Pacific," "the government that currently occupied the continent," just as we know what buildings fell down. Nevertheless, the act of reading here, though not strenuous, demands an agility of mind, an attention; and it is attended by a tendency to rethink the assumptions we make, the thinking we skip over, when we rely on habit and use the familiar names and nouns. If, as Spahr writes, the trauma brought on by terrorism — and, more significantly, its political and social ramifications — marks a certain impossibility of language, The Transformation demonstrates that this catastrophic impossibility has already occurred, well in advance of itself.

Nonetheless, we "find an ease in discomfort," as the text wishes we will. And the text draws to a close by finding a collective and collaborative model in an ancient and fragmented poem. The effect is haunting, gives us pause, reminds us that drawing breath finds us drawn into relation with one another. That the act of writing is intimately connected to the act of being human.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Species of Indices

One of the most interesting ideas Mark Scroggins raises in his recent post on the aesthetics of indexing is that the index constitutes a "re-seeing" of the text to which it refers:
Or – the index as a re-seeing of the volume, a re-reading of what one has already written. Zukofsky’s own indices: the index to Prepositions, which is nothing but concepts; the collaborative index to “A” – LZ indexed only “a,” “an,” and “the,” and his wife Celia did the rest, chiding him that no-one would find a three-word index of any earthly use. As if anyone “uses” the index to “A” that way.

Reading the index after the Chicago Manual — and thus perhaps pointing at a more normative and normalizing function to this peculiar text, or adjunct to a larger text — Scroggins notes that it affords the reader capability of "getting to the heart of the book & tearing it out."

Index, then, as veins that carry us, returning, towards the book's heart; and as eyes that revise the text, redirecting our attention. This revision relocates the book's heart. And because an index, of functional necessity, rearranges the text according to arbitrary alphabetization, it remarks upon strange juxtapositions: word and work are, logically enough, adjacent in "A", where Eros and Eskimo surprise.

Witihin indices, there is a special pleasure in those concepts, names, terms, etc. that appear only once within the text. As in "A":
clematis, 553
clover, 18
coconut, 400
invariance, 509
invention, 131
iris, 103
As a revision — and as a relocation of the book's center to its extremities and examples — this list calls out for special attention to these details, where others have been necessarily left out, lest index become complete concordance and overtake the book proper. Inviting us to imagine the book anew, they seem to work as an act of salvage, asking that we not overlook something for its scarcity, as though that very scarcity were accidental, or should be repaired.

Among indices, then, Georges Perec's for Species of Spaces stands out. No term listed appears more than once — or, at least is indicated as having multiple locations within the text's space. Perec invites our attention to the details, to the transitory, rather than to the generalizations or key concepts within the text. Or, to take up terms he deploys elsewhere: the index provides refuge for the fugitive ideas within the text. How else but through such an index to recall his reference to Forbidden Planet in his meditation on doors? This example — along with passing references to ice-creams and a large red O, to marshmallows and to monkey-wrenches — would risk being lost among concepts and ideas.

How else, too, to not forget that he invokes crayfish in an account of utopia? And this utopia provides a way of thinking such an index. Perec here describes a village in terms of the sort of familiarity a well-written index, used as well as it is written, might afford: "You'd know whether it was going to rain by looking at the shape of the clouds above the hill, you'd know the places where there are still crayfish."

Sunday, June 10, 2007

To wit

As I mentioned yesterday, K. Silem Mohammad's recent post on "Competence and Wit" is quite interesting, and I thought I might weigh in for a moment, if only to work through some of Kasey's ideas. I do so in the spirit of "thinking out loud" some ideas that are not yet fully fleshed out. [Note: I've added a bit more, at the end.]

If I read Kasey's post correctly, he's raising questions about what sort of "test of poetry" might be applicable to contemporary poetics, given that poetry (or, rather, the sort of poetry he's writing about) no longer thinks itself in terms of rigid and formally codified rules. As he explains, Victorian poetry (to use one example) could be objectively regarded in terms of prosodic rules — that, in other words, its "mere competence" could be objectively regarded by way of testing it against rules of scansion, rhyme, etc., and that its relative merit beyond this point is extrinsic to these qualities. Competence, then, is a value at once positive and prescriptive: it can be ascertained by testing the poem against the rules, and can be used to rule out a poem as merely incompetent without a consideration of the poem's "content," without reading the poem for other, less-quantifiable values, like "brilliance" (whatever that means).

Modernism, as Kasey describes it, arrives onto the scene, and intervenes within its space, as a sort of "death of art," as the term has been applied to, and subsequently used by, Arthur Danto in theorizing aesthetics after Warhol. As Danto writes (after Hegel), "...whatever art there was to be" after this point "would be made without benefit of a reassuring sort of narrative in which it was seen as the appropriate next stage of the story," at which point art becomes self-reflective of necessity, the meaning of the term art having been placed under question, though not erasure, by such works as Warhol's Brillo Boxes. Thus, and thenceforth, "an artwork can consist of any object whatsoever that is enfranchised as art, raising the question 'Why am I a work of art?'"

Tests of poetic merit still exist, though, as Kasey notes, these usually rely upon subjective qualities as their bases for valuation. Kasey notes that certain tendencies in post-war poetry value avoidance of cliché, or the construction of arbitrary rules, and adherence to those rules. We might add to his list such consideratons as the maxim that a poem must strive for a minimum number of words used to express a maximum of ideas, or certain notions of formal "closure" and "completeness." Or strictures like Olson's "form is never more than an extension of content" (and the architectural analogues thereof). Or the phrase "what will suffice" in Wallace Stevens' description of the "poem of the act of the mind." Or etc. etc. etc.

But certain of these tests present themselves as an ironic refutation of absolute rules. By way of an example, he cites O'Hara's joking "Personism," which treats craft-competence as "common sense" and "tightness": "As for measure and other technical apparatus, that's just common sense: if you're going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you." As Kasey points out, O'Hara's invocation of craft is raised only to poke fun at it. He — O'Hara, that is — doesn't deny that craft exists, but suggests the objective measure is nothing more than desire, itself a subjective value, even if it is playfully universalized with the word "everyone."

O'Hara's account of techné serves as a model for what Kasey calls "wit," which he (also playfully, if I read him correctly) describes according to the mathematical formula "competence + awareness of the inadequacy of competence [as a model for assessing a poem's relative merit]." It's this ironizing awareness — analogous, if I read correctly, to the "why am I a work of art" question posited in Danto's account of art — that wit relies upon in his formulation. Wit, then, is dialectically related to competence; it is a competence at competence's limits, or some such.

Certain hints in Kasey's post — namely his reference to "certain strands of contemporary poetry" — lead me to believe that he's talking about flarf, to which the notion of wit seems particularly applicable. I could, of course, be wrong, and I suppose that one could also ask how we know that this or that of Bruce Andrews' poems is competent. But flarf's desire to be deliberately "bad," at least in certain of its theorizations, necessarily invokes a standard, a certain quality of "goodness," according to which it negatively positions itself. This need not presume competence, of course — and Kasey's own formulation of this badness as a heavily ironized rejection of "acceptable" and "P.C." sentiments is one way of formulating it. Nonetheless, the general tenor, or what have you, of flarf is such that it not only implies, but relies upon, a standard of goodness against which it positions itself, and this standard is, at least in part, based on notions of craft that, if a poem can be determined to be flarf, or "good flarf," must be at least somewhat stable.

It might be interesting to look, even if only for a moment, at the question of wit (and at flarf in general) in terms of Danto's writing on the "death of art." One of the examples that he raises, and that might be relevant, even if only partially, to flarf and to Kasey's notion of wit is that of the Most Wanted paintings by Komar and Melamid. These paintings, executed after the collapse of the Soviet Union's totalitarian rule over art production, and desgined according to poll results on what people want from art, are terribly bad. Nonetheless, they do adhere — and surprisingly strictly — to normative paradigms of art, including a particular emphasis on mimetic representation that isn't all too different from the realism demanded by edict under Soviet rule. That is to say that they would score high on the comptetence measuring stick.

Komar and Melamid's paintings are, by any standard other than kitsch, quite bad. At the same time, they are quite good — once the viewer becomes aware of the apparatus according to which they were produced, their insistence on an imagery that Danto compares to calendars is re-read not in strict terms of normative conventions of art production, but in something like an opposition to them. Or a problematization of them, rather, as simplistic models of opposition are not apt either.

The question, then, is whether this constitutes a form of wit, as Kasey's using the term. Danto reads Komar and Melamid's paintings in different terms, of course, regarding the "rules" to which they apparently adhere as, in actuality, a result of the reductive values of the marketplace, to which the polls implicitly refer. Nonetheless, that the paintings find themselves drawn into relation to extremely conventional rules according to which, as in Kasey's mention of the Victorian measures of competence, contemporary assessments no longer subscribe. So, in other words, the rules are "there," even if only accidentally, and the paintings' process of generation would seem to ironize them, even if their "target" is elsewhere. Furthermore, Komar's and Melamid's insistence on designing the paintings such that they include everything the polls identified as "wanted" points to an ironic relationship to the rules extrapolated from the polling data.

But what, then, of the bad paintings Komar and Melamid created as an adjunct to these? I'm referring, of course, to the Least Wanted series, which turns the screw of good/bad with regards to polls and to conventions of competence once further? Can this still be considered wit? Do they continue to "= competence + awareness of the inadequacy of competence"? What's interesting in them is precisely this further complication of the relationship. These painting's can't rightly be considered kitsch — they're too much a departure from conservative notions of competence — but their continuation of the play executed by the former series doesn't produce "good" works of art, either...

— - — - —

Another question we might consider, and which I've added later: what happens if we regard the question of competence from its opposite perspective? Competence, as Kasey describes it, could be applied to a critique as follows: a poem that follows the prosodic rules of its era might be good or bad (or interesting or uninteresting, or whatever), depending on what it does within the framework those rules allow. But, from an objective perspective, it cannot be regarded as incompetent. Competence, then, serves as a kind of baseline by which an absolute — incompetent poetry — is "weeded out."

But what of the incompetent poem — the one that breaks the rules or is sloppy with its use/application of rules — that nonetheless says something fascinating? I'm thinking here of Dickinson, and the history of the editing of her work. Her work — as she wrote it in her manuscripts, that is, with the "irregularities" that have been "corrected" by her editors — demonstrates the failure of competence as an absolute measure of poetry, and does so twice over. First, because it shows that a poem can be good despite its refusal to conform itself to prescriptive rules of versification. And second, because it allows us the occasion to see what happens when the publication industry forces her work to conform: it reduces the poem by forcing its conformity to regularizing rules.

The reason I think this last is worth considering is that it raises the issue that "competence" — as a way of evaluating a poem's merit — works as an exclusionary device. I'm not going to suggest, though I suppose that the point may be raised, that there's an intersection of competence and gender politics, at least not necessarily. But there is a limit to competence, as Kasey no doubt knows, as a measure for poetry or its criticism...

But the issue of Dickinson's work also seems relevant in that it shows the ways comptetence, as a measure, functions in relation to those other things that the poem takes as its business. In particular, what I'm thinking of is Dickinson's description of poetry as, essentially, that which "makes [her] feel as if the top of [her] head were taken off." I'm inclined to read this statment — one of those subjective tests of poetry — alongside her writing's violation of the prosodic rules that, in her day, might have regarded the poems as "incompetent" (and that, in fact, have allowed her editors to feel it necessary to edit the poems). That is, to see her apparent "incompetence" as a symptom of a very real "competence" (if we can use that word) of the poem's non-prosodic/intellectual elements, which might in fact be considered an excess — demanded by the poem's intellectual process — of the rules that constitute competence in the first place.