This poem is a song an act a work of love
Taggart and repetition
Reading the poetry of John Taggart involves the pleasures of repetition, as well as the mysteries and agitations of repeated presences: of language, of ideas, of sound forms, of song. To open a book of Taggart’s poetry is to invite a round of singing and a round of thinking about what the poem does when it is sounded out, what elements of thought it welcomes in. A retrospective consideration of his work must necessarily involve the recognition that repetition is what rings the changes in the poems and what signals those changes themselves that the poems enable. Repetition can be used as a compass to guide you through Taggart’s poetry; it’s a tool, an orienting device. But it also works as a major theme in the poetry; as such, more than a tool, it’s a current, a form of fluidity and a generator of sustaining power for the work itself, figuring the musical practices that Taggart works and reworks in his poetry.
Repetition embraces compulsion as much as it enacts transformation. Where it is a technique it can also be a symptom — symptomatic of a pathology or indicative of an effort to surpass the compulsion to repeat, a sign or token to make something new. (Symptom from syn, together, and piptein, to fall.) In one of his essays on analytical technique, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” Freud considers the relationship between repetition and the “motive for remembering,” suggesting that as these forces are transferred, during analysis, they become “harmless, and indeed useful,” by giving them the right to be asserted “in a definite field.” He calls this field a “playground,” in which the compulsion to repeat is “allowed to expand in almost complete freedom and in which it is expected to display to us everything … that is hidden in the … mind.” Freud recognized that repetitions in his patients were combinations of repressed memories and a resistance to remember them. Rather than curbing these repetitions, he sought to transform them in the “harmless” space of analysis.
Kierkegaard juxtaposed repetition with recollection. He claimed that the Greeks “taught that all knowing is a recollecting” but that “modern philosophy will teach that all life is a repetition.” The difference between repetition and recollection, in Kierkegaard’s mind, was neither a matter of degree nor of kind, but of direction. “Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward.” Repetition, because it moves forward, has the possibility of making a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy. If there is a credo to Taggart’s work, it’s move forward. In the brief introductory remarks to a rare poetry reading in 2001 at the occasion of Taggart’s retirement from teaching, Pam Rehm, who had been one of Taggart’s students at Shippensburg University, said, “John always taught me that the important thing is to move forward. So that’s what I’m going to do.” At which point, she started her reading. Expanding into a defined field of almost complete freedom and moving forward: these are the creative results of repetition.
Mark Rothko, in a statement about his paintings, once referred to his art as “a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again.” The immense freedoms represented in the repetitions in his paintings seemingly moved into the future. Taggart, confessing himself “tremendously moved” by Rothko’s assertion, admits to having wanted to make a poem worthy of it. “As I moved closer to the composition of such a poem,” he writes, “it became clear to me that I would have to find ways to translate the qualities inhering not only in stained glass and Rothko’s painting, but also those in Gregorian chant and Meister Eckhart. These qualities would have to come to exist in language as sound. It occurs to me that all my work, before and since this poem, involves translation, or, more accurately, transformation to make a poem ‘a sound object.’”
The poem whose composition he moved closer to is “Slow Song for Mark Rothko,” which appeared originally in Peace on Earth, published in 1981 by Turtle Island, a book usefully measured as Taggart’s creative turning point. Consider the opening stanza of “Slow Song for Mark Rothko”:
To breathe and stretch one’s arms again
to breath through the mouth to breathe to
breathe through the mouth to utter in
the most quiet way not to whisper not to whisper
to breathe through the mouth in the most quiet way to
breathe to sing to breathe to sing to breathe
to sing the most quiet way.
It’s possible today to speak of the “Taggart line,” which can be described as a line of poetry built from “atomic” units of words and phrases repeated in a way to give rhythm and structure to the poem, which are then overturned in subsequent lines that test, resist, stretch, and repeat these elements. In Taggart’s poetry, repetition almost never means literally repeating. Rather, as Taggart describes it, the atomic phrases function so that “no one of them [is] complete as with a sentence, but [each is] kept continually in motion toward completion.” This motion toward completion generates the sonic and intellectual properties of the definite field or playground of Taggart’s poems, something that is allowed to expand in almost complete freedom. Genuine repetition is recollected forward. As he puts it in section 15 of “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” from There Are Birds:
sequence = one after
another set of things that belong together that are put together
that are made to hold together …
repetition of a phrase a unit/part of a melody at a higher or lower pitch
a phrase-mark a line linking notes that belong together
dependence of a subordinate verb according to rules of tense for the principle verb
the principle verb is think
The relationship between liberating expression and carefully repeated atomic phrases transforms Taggart’s poems from rote litany into the incantatory petition his work so frequently invokes. Take these lines from “Precious Lord,” in which Taggart rings through changes on the word “epiphany”:
Thomas Dorsey wrote the words wrote the words and the music
Thomas Dorsey wrote the words wrote the essential word
wrote “precious” not “blessed” the essential word is “precious”
this was meant to be enshrined as a moment of epiphany
moment when he wrote the better sounding word
moment of epiphanie epiphania epiphano epiphaneia epiphanies
moment of epiphany essential word shining picture
Dorsey: “that thing like something hit me and went all over me
that thing must be that same thing went all over him.
Much as the Taggart line starts from certain words the poet fixates on — precious, epiphany, saint, want — to develop from a line into a stanza into a progression, the effect is experienced not as fixation (or as a compulsion to repeat) but as cantillation, in which the struck bells of the words and phrases resound as other bells of words ring out, in rhythmical, repeated sequences that drift into harmony, but then unsettle into slight dissonance.
John Taggart, George Oppen, and Ted Enslin: Taggart notes, “this was 1975 at Sylvester’s Cove, Maine. We had been visiting Ted at his place in Temple (Maine — Denise and Mitch Goodman lived not far away) and agreed to meet with George and Mary for a picnic. They sailed over from their summer place at Little Deer Isle” (photo by Jennifer Taggart).
To suggest there is only one Taggart line, however, would be misleading. I think Taggart’s work can usefully be organized into three major periods, albeit ones with intermediate periods that incorporate elements from previous periods into the next. Taggart’s early poetry is characterized as Objectivist experiment, to put it one way. Objectivist writing, which is probably the single most important influence on Taggart’s work, is a label applied to a group of second-generation Modernists who began to work in the 1930s but whose major works tended to be produced in the 1960s, including Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, and, to a lesser degree, Basil Bunting, whose work emphasized the treatment of the poem as an object, and whose most significant predecessors were William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. Taggart’s poetry in an identifiably Objectivist mode encompasses a decade of work, beginning with To Construct a Clock, which appeared in 1971 when the poet was twenty-nine years old, through The Pyramid Is a Pure Crystal, The Prism and the Pine Twig, into Dodeka, which was published in 1979. Two of these books, To Construct a Clock and The Prism and the Pine Twig, include shorter lyric poems that reflect Taggart’s investment in the work of George Oppen. Both Pyramid and Dodeka are more distinctly informed by a craft inspired by Louis Zukofsky, in that the books — each made up of one single serial poem apiece — involve complex compositional systems that place considerable demands — and stress — on the poems themselves.
Peace on Earth, from 1981, as I’ve already indicated, is a turning point. This book, comprised of four poems, signaled a seemingly enormous change in Taggart’s work. Gone were the short, Objectivist lyrics. Gone too were the complex systems, and the constraining boxes around the poems. Here were poems that breathed and stretched their arms, even as they took on grave subjects, such as the cost and aftermath of the Vietnam War explored in the title poem. The mode that Taggart discovered at this time directed his work for the next fifteen years, culminating in the publication of Loop in 1991. This is a massive book of poetry — over 230 pages — that gathers most of Taggart’s work from the 1980s, including one of his most memorable works, “The Rothko Chapel Poem.” He continued to explore this opened line in two subsequent books, Standing Wave and Crosses, the latter of which, despite being recently published (2005), contains work from the early to mid-1990s. If Taggart’s first period were to be labeled Objectivist experiment, this second period might profitably be called minimalist incantation. I first heard Taggart read his poetry in the early nineties; the effect of listening to his poems spoken aloud was to understand the mesmerizing, hypnagogic modality at work in these compositions.
Music, of course, has been a recurrent feature in Taggart’s work, from medieval plainchant, to modal jazz and John Coltrane, to Beethoven, to Olivier Messiaen, to gospel and R&B. A musical discovery signaled the change that brought Taggart into his third, present period. Commissioned to write a poem about Coltrane’s epic “A Love Supreme,” Taggart found himself grieving for the loss of a friend, the sculptor Bradford Graves. At the same time, Taggart began listening to the music of Sainte-Colombe, the eighteenth-century French composer and master of the viole da gambe, a prototype of the cello, as well as the bass viol, which he legendarily modified by adding a seventh, lower string, to give the instrument an even deeper melancholic timbre than it already presented. Taggart worked these elements — Coltrane, grief and loss, rose gardening, and Sainte-Colombe, among many others — into a singularly powerful long poem, When the Saints (1999), that added to the repetitive line of his middle period a much shorter line that in turn generates shorter stanzas, allowing for increased expressivity in his poetry (of grief, of course, but also a bittersweet humor) resembling less the minimalism of his middle period but more the variable musical forms that characterize Beethoven’s late string quartets (an enduring source of inspiration for Taggart’s poetry), as well as the choruses of Rhythm & Blues. This form came fully to life in Pastorelles (2004), which joins another musical/literary form, the medieval French pastourelle — a lyric that depicts scenes of rural life or that is expressive of that atmosphere — with the broader musical concept of the pastoral, something Beethoven famously brought to life in his Pastoral Symphony in 1808. The recurring subject of these poems is the drought that in the late 1990s hit south-central Pennsylvania, where Taggart has lived for several decades, particularly as the drought affected Taggart’s carefully cultivated gardens. This current mode, which might be labeled meditative plaint, has been especially fruitful for Taggart, in spite of its source in drought and grief, producing some of his most memorable poetry. He has continued to expand and to explore this mode in There Are Birds (2008), where his sonic, musical notations have given way to botanical, horticultural reflections, most vividly in “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” the long poem that comprises most of the volume, but also in the shorter lyrics which, like the longer poem, signal Taggart’s indebtedness to his poetic ancestors, including poems addressed to the recently deceased Robert Creeley, and also to Zukofsky, who we learn is the subject of “the one/only photograph on my wall.” Having browsed the shelves and seen the desks where Taggart composes his letters and poems in his rural Pennsylvania home, I can attest to this fact: the only photograph on the walls of his study is the portrait of Zukofsky he describes in “Grey Scale/Zukofsky.”
To view Taggart’s uses of repetition — genuine repetition is recollected forward — it’s time to look more closely at some poetry. I choose three poems from the most recent of Taggart’s periods, the one I’m calling meditative plaint. The first two come from Pastorelles, probably one of Taggart’s most successful books and certainly one of his best. This book represents a breakthrough of sorts: a collection of shorter lyrics unified around the theme of drought and the havoc it wreaked on his extensive gardens. The tone of these poems is one of wry resignation and associative clarities — as in previous books, the phrase remains the sonic unit but in these poems the phrases are bound less often by direct repetition and more often by thematic and tonal repetitions. Here is “Pastorelle 15,” a short poem:
in the drought of 1876–1879 reportedly confused
rustling of dry leaves for rain
when the ear’s not yet adulterated/unadulterated in the morning
late at night or very early in the morning
it sounds like rain.
A splendid little poem. Its lyric surprise relies on the unwinding of the syntax to the last line, which repeats the key word, “rain,” the sound of which in the mind mimics the actuality of the dry leaves clattering in the morning or evening breezes. The poem begins to expand syntactically and imagistically in the fourth line, “when the ear’s not yet adulterated/unadulterated,” aided by the absence of punctuation, such that the phrases connect and compound. (Minimal use of punctuation is a trait consistent throughout Taggart’s work.) The pairing of adulterated/unadulterated is important to the poem: initially, it suggests sexual corruption (or its lack) and by extension, the sense of being tainted/untainted. But it’s also a botanical word, used to describe hybrids and pure breeds in flower growing, for instance. The ear not yet stained by the day or tuned to the sensitivities of the day, moving forward into the day, at first hears rain. The genuine repetition in this poem is not only the word “rain” but the idea of its sound carried through the whole.
“Why Trees Weep,” also from Pastorelles, returns to the idea of rain, albeit by association. Here, as in “Pastorelle 15,” the elements of the poem, including its ideas (its logopoeia), are kept in motion until the poem is completed:
Because they’re listening to Sainte Columbe’s “Les Pleurs”
because those they would love don’t
love them flee
because their neighbors are beset with illness/disease experience
pain in movement or
can’t move can only sit in gardens going to weeds
Niobe lost all her children.
This poem depends on the simple gesture of three answers to the implied question of the title, each introduced by the repeated anaphora of “because.” The patent absurdity of the first response takes us back into one of the repeated engagements of When the Saints, the book-length poem published prior to Pastorelles: Taggart’s involvement with the music of Sainte-Columbe, the reclusive seventeenth-century viol da gambe innovator. When the Saints is Taggart’s elegy to his friend, sculptor Bradford Graves. In this book he introduces the mode of meditative plaint he perfects in Pastorelles. Sainte-Columbe caught his attention because of the superbly melancholic timbre of his music, resulting as many believe from the seventh string in a lower register he added to the viol da gambe, which Taggart describes in When the Saints:
Sainte Columbe added a string
Sainte Columbe added a string to the viol
six + one
added a vibration
six vibrations + one vibration
added a vibration and changed the vibration
added harmony and changed harmony
changed the destination of the music
the destination changed
inward and secret destination.
We can take changing the destination of the music as a phrase synonymous with genuine repetition is recollected forward. The inward, secret destination of the music awaits the reader in the poems of Pastorelles, where inwardness is meditation and plaint, at least in “Why Trees Weep.”
Niobe was the wife of the Theban king Amphion, mother of seven sons and seven daughters. So proud she was of her children that one day she was boasting to Leto, daughter of Titans and mother merely to twins but sired by Zeus: Apollo and Artemis. Robert Graves sets the vivid scene: “Mante, the prophetic daughter of Teiresias, overhearing this rash remark, advised the Theban women to placate Leto and her children at once: burning frankincense and wreathing their hair with laurel branches. When the scent of incense was already floating in the air, Niobe appeared, followed by a throng of attendants and dressed in a splendid Phrygian robe, her long hair flowing loose. She interrupted the sacrifice and furiously asked why Leto, a woman of obscure parentage, with a mannish daughter and a womanish son, should be preferred to her, Niobe, grandchild of Zeus and Atlas, the dread of the Phrygians, and a queen of Cadmus’s royal house? Though fate or ill-luck might carry off two or three of her children, would she not still remain the richer?” Leto was not placated. Before Niobe could do anything about it, her superior twins, armed with bows, were seeking and destroying Niobe’s children, slaying them all. In her grief, Niobe wept until she was turned into a column of stone.
Taggart’s poem works together into a gloss the myth of Niobe, the mystery of Sainte-Columbe’s music, and the fact of trees, whose anthropomorphism in his poem casts them as Ovidian actors in his own transformation of music into an inward summons. Besides sound repetitions, Taggart avails mythic, thematic repetitions: Niobe’s loss anticipates Sainte Columbe’s melancholic music anticipates the death of Taggart’s friend, Bradford Graves, anticipates his recollection of that loss in this little poem.
The third poem I’d like to consider in terms of its repetitions is “Show and Tell/Robert Creeley,” from There Are Birds. This poem belongs in the company of other recent poems functioning partly as homage and partly as what might be called “an autobiography of my lineage.” Despite a habit of writing essays in which he wrestles his ancestors, in his poetry Taggart is more forthcoming about his debts. In Pastorelles, there is a poem entitled “William Bronk” and another entitled “Lorine Niedecker.” There Are Birds includes a poem for Louis Zukofsky, a long poem called “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” and “Show and Tell/Robert Creeley.” Reading and reciting poetry are other forms of repetition, ones that deepen a poet’s sense of the work he values. Taggart describes this in the opening lines of another poem from Pastorelles, “The Compulsion to Repeat”:
Gradually how gradually
one comes to understand the poets
as gradually as
the compulsion of one’s own compulsion the compulsion to repeat
The Robert Creeley poem, written as an elegy after the poet’s death in 2005, is atypically autobiographical, telling the story of Taggart as a young man experiencing a first deep recognition while reading a poem of Creeley’s. The scene of the poem is Aspen, Colorado in the 1960s. He writes:
this is me then young man young poet
beside the Roaring Fork or a tributary the open blue and white For Love
book in one hand
the other in a gesture of appeal
the assignment show and tell show what
this poem “A Song”
fine clockwork of it subtle grammar of it of its words
their sounds and arrayment
Monk/Mozart refinement of the shifting pitches of this poem all fitted
together quiet and
and unheard/cannot be heard over the white noise steady roar of the
up white water
The repetitions and prolongations in the line, “fine clockwork of it subtle grammar of it of its words,” demonstrate a poetic gesture typical of Taggart’s work: preserving the structure of a phrase to push a thought forward, always slightly altered and adjusted. Much like some of the gestures of classic-period minimalist music.
Creeley’s poem, “A Song,” from For Love, which Taggart’s poem deliberately echoes, is both a provocation and a summons, both especially potent for a susceptible young poet to receive.
I had wanted a quiet testament
and I had wanted, among other things,
That was to be
of a like monotony.
Simply. Very very quiet.
A murmur of some lost
thrush, though I have never seen one.
Which was you then. Sitting
and so, at peace, so very much now this same quiet.
And of you the sign now, surely, of a gross
(which is not reluctant, or if it is,
it is no longer important.
Which one sings, if he sings it,
With great tenderness and unabashed grief, the older poet looks back on the image of the younger poet he was, sitting by the side of the river, and remembers being provoked and summoned by Creeley’s poem. The potential for bathos in such a poem is great unless handled with honesty and care. “[H]ear me now all these years later,” he says. “[R]eading with older/different eyes / which see what they see through/after tears the locked the unacknowledged.” Unacknowledged is the grace received at that moment from Creeley’s poem about “a girl so bright/in bloom who rejoices the heart.” The poet’s death and the memory of this moment trigger in Taggart a “motive for remembering” (to use Freud’s phrase again) that allows him to work through his grief. The conclusion to the poem is a highlight in Taggart’s oeuvre.
a poet’s thinking the long labor with words
want wanted have/had wanted not what a young man was so wanting and
wanting but what a
song wants just a few a spoonful of the right the rough and the smooth
words in the right order here and
there a rest making room for breath and letting a few of the words sink in
careful/with care how a song is to be sung if one sings it and
the last of the requirements
for care is clear having come through the ambiguities/tears having had to
learn the meaning
of the blues
what will fit on a bracelet a simple inscription
all these years later
hear me now having stepped back and needing to come forward
this poem is a song an
a work of love
Taggart is one of the most important innovators in American poetry in the past fifty years, the author, in the words of Robert Duncan, “of the larger dream-song of a transmission that goes back surely to Herakleitos and Pythagoras,” carrying forward into the present “a received content of our poetic imperative.” His poems define my sense of experimentation and revelation in a life devoted to poetry, poems that incant, in compulsive repetitions expanding into freedom, the dimensions of a definite field, a playground of language, wherein we might discover, if not everything, at least many of the things that lay hidden in the mind.
1. Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud XII, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1958), 154.