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.

Saturday, June 9, 2007


A lazy post. A list of things I've found on the internet and found interesting. I am sure that none of this counts as "news," and that, if men or women will die for lack of finding these, they've already found them.
"She'll be Coming 'Round" by James Sherry, at Nick Piombino's blog. (Scroll down a bit.)

Legion (II) by Craig Dworkin.

An interesting post by Mark Scroggins on the index. (It's the entry for June 5; scroll down if necessary.)

From UbuWeb's Anthology of Conceptual Writing:
"Points for Motion" by Vito Acconci.
"a an av es" by Alan Davies. (Also available at Eclipse.)
"Denny Lile" by Richard Meltzer.
"The first thousand numbers classified in alphabetical order" by Claude Closky.

Earlier versions of parts of The Transformation by Juliana Spahr:

[ADDENDUM: K. Silem Mohammad's remarks on competence and wit would have been on the earlier version of this list, but I hadn't read it yet.

Noah Webster's 1828 definition of the noun

Friday, June 8, 2007

Sound + Image

Steven Fama remarks in the comments to my post on Bruce Conner's REPORT that the stroboscopic flicker of black and white blanks induces a state of heightened anxiety that he describes in physiological terms.

He's right, of course. In fact, I thought that I'd said this, but a review of the published version shows that I connected this dimension of the film exclusively to the soundtrack, and the newscaster's horror at what is unfolding. Fama's point is important because it elaborates what is at stake in the difference between the experience of a traumatic event of national urgency and the sutured and closed official narrative written after the fact. That is, an attention to the emotional response generated by the film's strobed blank reminds us that it is precisely this immediacy — experienced in a visceral, rather than "rational" or reflective way — that distinguishes the event from its analysis or intepretation after the fact.

At the same time, I think Fama overstates the role of the stroboscopic flicker in producing this anxiety-effect. Certainly, strobes tend to disorient, confuse, etc. And anxiety may well attend these effects. But I wonder if the film's particular anxiety is, in the end, an effect of the audio narration rather than the flickering crescendo that accompanies it. Certainly, the strobe works on the mind, and I can't deny that, in the rush towards its peak, it resembles a quickening pulse that corresponds to the breathlessness of the newscaster's report on the soundtrack. But when I watch the movie silently, the strobe, though disorienting, simply doesn't have the effect Fama describes.

[I should also note that Fama's comments allowed me the opportunity to correct my errant ways, and to render the title of Conner's film correctly. So, thanks!]

Thursday, June 7, 2007

ten + 1

A few furtive thoughts about the ten + 1 poetics quotes from yesterday:

1. The challenge of the task wasn't limiting myself to only a slight excess of the proposed limit. It was finding statements succinct enough to stand on their own.

2. I tried not to shape the list too much, really only deciding between two contenders when they expressed nearly identical ideas. Nevertheless, most of the quotes deal with three not unrelated themes: poetry as a study of language; attention to language as a transformation of language and a re-thinking of the relationship between language and world; the re-thinking of the world as an involvement in the transformation of social organization. No surprises, I suppose...

3. I probably wouldn't have expected John Taggart to end up on the list. It's not that I don't like his work, but that I've not made an extensive study of his poetics. I'd happened to read the text in question, and it came to mind as a way of thinking about a poem being rooted in sound, as emerging from something like nonsense or gibberish. A mouthing. And I envy his ability to use an incredibly repetitive musicality in his poetry.

4. The Craig Dworkin quote also took a convoluted route to end up on the final list. I'd recently re-read a number of Kenneth Goldsmith's essays, and went back through one or two, hoping to find something useful. It was this quote that stood out, though I'd mis-remembered its sentiment as Goldsmith's. I was even tempted for a moment to include just enough of Goldsmith's signal phrase introducing the quote to call it his, but thought that wouldn't be fair to Dworkin. I think Goldsmith might have liked it, though...

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Quotes on poetics

Some bloggers have been tagging other bloggers and asking them to quote ten statements of poetics; some of the other bloggers have done so, listing the influences and ideas that inform them, and some have not. Some bloggers have not been tagged at all, but have decided to participate nonetheless.

Here's my list — ten poets, plus Shklovsky. I'll resist the temptation — for today, at least — to provide commentary or explanation, or to elucidate in which ways, exactly, these have shaped my writing and thinking.

Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.... [T]he ultimate purpose of the work of art is ... the renewal of perception, the seeing of the world suddenly in a new light, in a new unforeseen way.

— Victor Shklovsky
"Art as Technique"

— - — - —

To begin with, I don't think that the messages are for the poet any more than the radio program is for the radio set. And I think that the radio set doesn't really worry about whether anyone's listening to it or not, and neither does the poet. The poem may have some Nielsen ratings of its own. It carries on in the middle distance somewhere.

—Jack Spicer
"Vancouver Lecture I"

— - — - —

[A] case can be made out for the poet giving some of his life to the use of the words the and a: both of which are weighted with as much epos and historical destiny as one man can perhaps resolve. Those who do not believe in this are too sure that the little words mean nothing among so many other words.

— Louis Zukofsky
"Poetry / For My Son
When He Can Read"

— - — - —

dont you know that "No" is the wildest word we consign to Language?

— Emily Dickinson
Letter 562, c. 1878
to Otis P. Lord

— - — - —

Due to N. O. Brown's remark that syntax is the arrangement of the army, and Thoreau's that when he heard a sentence he heard feet marching, I became devoted to nonsyntactical "demilitarized" language.

— John Cage
Empty Words

— - — - —

I am a grammarian I do not hesitate but I rearrange prepositions.

— Gertrude Stein
How to Write

— - — - —

The "open text," by definition, is open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies. It speaks for writing that is generative rather than directive.

— Lyn Hejinian
"The Rejection of Closure"

— - — - —

[T]he poet is the Namer or Language-maker, naming things sometimes after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another's, thereby rejoicing the intellect, which delights in detachments or boundary. The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson
"The Poet"

— - — - —

Say the rhythm before you play it. It may not be necessary to express this in nonsense syllables. Perhaps there could be such syllables which coalesce into words as the poem moves along.

— John Taggart
"Were You: Notes & a Poem
for Michael Palmer"

— - — - —

What would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with ‘spontaneous overflow’ supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet’s ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself? So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.

— - — - —

[W]riting which seems to be "about" meaning also takes as its goal the challenging of existing frames and the widening of this social realm of possibility. It involves testing the horizon, setting up a probe, by violating codes so that each unit keeps getting reframed — or keeps reframing what's going on before it and what might come next as you challenge these wider and wider concentric circles of normalization, or of a functional fit, almost a machinelike fit that exists within the social dimension of language. So this larger operation of the entire body of language — the internal relations of this totality — can begin to be recast.... The methods by which meaning arrives in a prefabricated way are challenged and, at the same time, so are the limitsof the socal order.

— Bruce Andrews
"Total Equals What"

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Bervin's Emily Dickinson

Jessica Smith, over at looktouchblog, recently called my attention to Jen Bervin's quilting project on the Emily Dickinson Fascicles. Bervin begins by taking one of Dickinson's fascicles — self-published and handmade collections of poems — and removing the vocabulary. In its stead, she stitches in thread onto oversized cotton "pages" the dashes, dots, and crosses that characterize Dickinson's manuscripts and distinguish them from the published versions of her writing. The result: a palmpsest of ambiguous and gestural markings that collapses an entire fascicle's dashes, dots, and crosses into a single field, allowing the viewer to see them clearly.

It's tempting to compare this, in its blanking of the text, to Rauschenberg's "Erased de Kooning Drawing." After all, a poem is made of words, and Bervin's removal of these words would seem to be just such an erasure. But Rauschenberg's approach — an interrogation of the relationship between creation and destruction, about the ways art and artist are related within a commodity economy and to one another — is fundamentally different from Bervin's, which essentially constitutes a textual and literary investigation. The result raises — or reiterates, given that Susan Howe, among others, have already so raised — "questions about the nature and meaning of the marks." It reverses the treatment given to the poems through most of their history, effacing what has hitherto been retained, and retaining what was once effaced. And it calls into question the assumption that a poem is its vocabulary, redirecting our attention so that we examine that which is outside of language, yet undeniably and indelibly present on the page.

Conventional punctuation was abolished not to add 'soigné stitchery' but to subtract arbitrary authority. Dashes drew liberty of interruption inside the struture of each poem. Hush of hesitation for breath and for breathing.

Susan Howe

At the same time, I'm a touch ambivalent about the act of collapsing the marks of eleven and twenty-one poems (in the works based on fascicles sixteen and forty, respectively) into these single fields. It certainly, and usefully, calls attention to the gestural variety of the markings, as Bervin suggests. And where it does suggest a way of thinking the poems' seriality in vertical, rather than horizontal, terms, it simultaneously effaces that seriality's sequential structure, and risks losing each poem's relative autonomy from the others within the fascicle. That is, it risks losing the spatial layout of each poem's own markings in reducing them to a single surface.

In the end, the problem I'm raising here might not be soluble. It might, in fact, be analogous to Saussure's remarks about the need to choose between diachronic ("horizontal") and synchronic ("vertical") analysis.

Nor do I think that the critique I'm bringing here should detract from the project as a whole. That Bervin is investigating this component to Dickinson's work is significant. That she is doing so through visual art — and, in so doing, that she suggests we regard these markings in visual, rather than grammatical terms — is more so.

This space is the poem's space. Letters are sounds we see. Sounds leap to the eye. Word lists, crosses, blanks, and ruptured stanzas are points of contact and displacement.

Susan Howe

[NOTE: The first quote from Susan Howe can be found in My Emily Dickinson. The second is from "These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values," published in The Birth-Mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History.]

Monday, June 4, 2007

Report on refusal

In my post on Bruce Conner's REPORT a few days ago, I read the film's stroboscopic blank spot as a limit of representation, as a manifestation of representation's limits. There's a passage in Juliana Spahr's newest book, The Transformation, that addresses this topic as well, and that I think is worth mention. Where questions of representation, of language, of explanation, of defintion constitute the book's displaced and decentered "center," they come to one of their many heads in relation to another, more recent, national tragedy.

"Basically, langugage itself became impossible" in the aftermath, in the seventh section of The Transformation. Approaches to language taken up by the avant garde, Spahr writes, that were designed to critique power, to provide ways of thinking that resisted the structures of power, no longer made sense, no longer worked their resistance, when "all the government officials avoided clear language and stuttered."
It was as if the government that currently occupied the continent had taken over one of the few remaining tools of resistance, the very tools of fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on, and even used them, leaving not only the poets but also the organizers and the activists empty handed.

This impossibility of language takes the form of an uncertainty, a confusion, that, while it precedes the national tragedy, takes a different direction, takes on a different charge in this aftermath. Spahr articulates an uncertainty of what, or even how, to think within this place where language has become impossible.

It — this confusion, this uncertainty in the face of language's new impossibility — is also framed as a refusal. Spahr writes, of herself and her domestic collective community: "Even though they were trained ... in close reading, trained in making sense out of nonsense, ... they refused the sense." Elsewhere, "they refused to understand" what was happening around them. This refusal's form works throughout the text, in its refusal of specifics, particularly of descriptors and proper names, and of the official language used, by the "government that currently occupied the continent" to describe the tragedy, which, in this account has no name. The question of what to call this event, how to think it, how to describe it without using the language used by the government is left unresolved, presented as a problem of naming, of definition, of representation. To call it anything is to participate in the construction of a particular interpretation; thus, refusal.

There is a resemblance here, between this refusal of representation and Conner's use of the blank spot, but it comes with a difference. Spahr's text explicitly theorizes — even as it resists the temptation to a solid and non-problematized theory — the impossibility of language and of representation, where Conner's film does not. The difference is of effect, and of the ideal readers constituted by these texts. Where Spahr's work is at its base critical, where The Transformation intellectualizes the question of a refusal of representation, Conner's film is an act of mourning that calls upon its reader in emotional terms, even as it comes to problematize representation, and ultimately to refuse it.

Sunday, June 3, 2007


The July issue of Jacket magazine includes an interesting essay by Craig Perez on Mike Magee's controversial poem — the one that caused a shitstorm about a year ago — "Their Eyes, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay." Perez approaches the poem within the context of Magee's critical work on Emersonian symbolic action, suggesting that the poem is "armed with 'pragmatist view of language,'" which it takes up against the "devious rhetoric of ritualized prejudice on the internet [to] propose social change through the remaking of social discourse."

At the same time, Perez's article demonstrates — inadvertently, if not unconsciously — the ways that the discourse surrounding poetry has been changed by the internet. The change does not come in the form of a new critical approach to poetry or a new set of terms, but the fact that the publication and critique(s) of, and response(s) to, "Their Eyes, Their Asian Glittering Eyes" happened almost immediately. As testament to this, Perez presents the poem alongside Magee's commentary, written during the controversy as direct response to his critics. Of course, criticism has often brought authorial explanation (e.g., letters) to bear on a poem's interpretation. But two factors are different here: the immediacy with which Magee's commentary (as well as that of his critics) was made public, and the extent to which this act of explanation and defense has occurred in full view of an incredibly wide public.

The effect is that the poem's boundaries are extended. "Their Eyes, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay" is not limited to the poem itself, but almost necessarily includes the entire text of its controversy — if not all 500 pages, at least all of Magee's side of the discussion. We can, in a sense, read Magee's responses to his critics as part of the poem, at least inasmuch as they clarify, amend, and (arguably) revise the poem. As public texts, they complicate our sense of the poem's scope, not in the sense of what it chooses to address, but in the sense of its own boundaries as text. As revisions, Magee's comments may not change the text of the poem proper, but they are, in a manner of speaking, part of the poem.

For Perez, the poem is democratic in its relationship to its source materials, the rhetoric it seeks to call into question through its "scorching irony," and particularly in the attitude towards language that allows for such to be regarded as political action. I'm tempted to say that the effect of this extension of the poem's boundaries constitutes a democratization of the text, such that "authorship" (perhaps broadly conceived) is extended to include not only the particular act of authorship, or the commentary Magee follows it with, but also the commentary of the interlocutors. This is not especially unique — poets have always written within a social space, have always modified their writing based on the suggestions of peers, and in response to the economic and aesthetic pressures of publishers, etc. But, again, the fact that this happens here within view of a theoretically limitless public does seem to mark a change of some sort, even if it is only of degree. (This is perhaps reiterated by Perez's invitation at the essay's close to weigh in on his blog; unfortunately, the link does not currently work...)

In the end, I'm not certain that this is so significant a change, or whether it does imply the democratization I've hinted at. It seems to me, in fact, that it potentially raises more questions than it answers. Or it could be that the case of "Their Eyes, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay" is not at all different, that the questions one might apply to it are in fact relevant to any act of writing, of explanation, of controversy. That it is, in other words, an example of the ways texts have always worked within the social realm, where this case simply plays out the dialectical author/reader relationship within a broader and more visible social space.

[NOTE: Much of the discussion of Magee's poem is included or linked here. The original blog — the one to which Perez's essay refers — appears to be defunct; my link is to a cached version of the page.]

[ADDENDUM (a few hours later): Another way of thinking about the last issues I raise is, of course, to suggest that an insistence on regarding Magee's defense of "Their Eyes..." as part of the poem reasserts authorial control — along with attendant notions of authority over the text's meanings. Nonetheless, the fact that these defenses are given over to the interlocutors, inasmuch as they respond directly to their charges, shows the poem to exist within a direct relation to the critiques raised in the controversy.]