Articles

Poetry after the Siege of Leningrad

Montage, ekphrasis, allegory

The theme of war should be named as one of the most urgent and, ironically, productive, for contemporary Russian poetry. We find its various incarnations in the works of such striking and dissimilar poets as Elena Fanailova, Mariia Stepanova, and Stanislav Lvovsky. These poets are primarily preoccupied by the new wars of Russian empire such as the Chechnya campaigns as well as by the unmediated, continuous wars of memory — among which the war between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany still remains one of the hottest spots both culturally and politically, producing new interpretations and representations.

After one of my recent talks in the US about the culture of the Siege, I was approached by a polite elderly gentleman who asked me a question that at first struck me with its absurdity and then with its absurd sharpness — “has the Siege of Leningrad ended?” he asked. The Siege of Leningrad, a calamity that claimed up to two million lives, one of the most dramatic and controversial military events of the last century, was lifted in January 1944 — and yet, in many ominous ways it is still going on, and morphing, producing new meanings in the imagination of Russians. It has been exhaustively described and discussed, yet it remains a troubling, problematic episode of the Soviet war against Nazi Germany: on par with Stalin’s labor camps, the Siege remains one of the most problematic zones of Soviet history.  

In history and memory of the Siege, categories of dramatic historical magnitude emerge from juxtaposed narratives: order (both allegedly imposed from Moscow and established by the local Party hierarchy) and chaos (the rise of criminal activity of all kinds, from the black market to cannibalism) turned the Siege of Leningrad into a zone of societal repression and taboo, shielded for half a century from sober historical examination or artistic readdressing by the official terms, heroism and stoicism, that obscured grim reality like a funeral shroud. Sociologist Lev Gudkov claims that late Soviet society was glued together by the myth of the victorious war and victorious nation, and that this still remains the case today.[1] Any confrontation or deconstruction of this account elicits radically negative reactions from the majority of Russians. As one young pro-Putin critic puts it in his response to publication of the texts I discuss below: “You won’t resurrect your dead. In the case of two million blokadniki [Siege victims and witnesses] — you can’t understand them, you can’t hear them. But you can pray for them, ask for forgiveness and keep your silence.”[2] Any attempt at frank dialogue with the national past(s) is apt to be received with antagonism, denial, or both, and a quasi-Heideggerian notion of silence turns into an instrument for the control of national memory. One of my interviewees expressed this view sardonically, thus summing up the opinion prevailing in Russia today: “Don’t dare to touch their wounds, since they don’t have any wounds anyway.”

Yet precisely out of spite, inspired by their disagreement with the politics of silence, contemporary Russian poets choose to write about the Siege; the most interesting of these attempts aim at bringing the modern reader closer to the experience and subjectivity of blokadniki: how did they conceive of their situation? What did they feel, see, and hear? What language(s) were coined in that experience, and, crucially, how can these languages be transposed or translated into today’s poetics?

In the present essay I look at the several contemporary poetic texts dedicated to the Siege, analyzing various takes on the task of such a historical gesture as well as the formal qualities adopted by today’s poets for their post-Siege contemplations. The latest publication, Sergei Zavialov’s montage-text “Christmas Fast,” appeared in the leading journal New Literary Review and is directly connected to such phenomena of historical data as the Siege archive, the mass of unprocessed source materials (diaries, letters, works of fiction) still awaiting archiving, publication, reading, interpretation. Zavialov’s quest for an adequate form is inventive, insistent, sometimes humbling, sometimes frustrating — everything that such a complicated search for diction might involve. His piece presents a panoramic montage of various Siege languages. In a bold dialogue-play with the urgency and necessity of authenticity, he reproduces and recombines various layers of the Siege logomorphic machine: 

He said:

                   Alimentary dystrophy is a pathological process, which from the
clinical perspective should be interpreted as a nosological unit. Yakov
Rappoport suggested that this illness has gastrogenic origin. Building on
the contemporary ideas about the diverse functions of the mucous
membrane of the stomach and its role in the nervous and humoral
regulation of the vital processes, the author sees disturbance of the
stomach’s mucous membrane to be the crucial link in the pathogeny of the
alimentary dystrophy.

 She said:

 I am lying here sick. And they: gobble gobble gobble gobble.

 You said:

 Oh, how splendid was the snowfall at dusk,

 The snowflakes that blur the outlines of space.

 Disappearance of lines, fading of shadows, numbing of sounds.

 They said:

                   Yesterday night fragments of the Southern front sector of the
Soviet army under General Kharitnov’s command breached the
fortifications of the Nazi Army and occupied Rostov. General Kleist’s
group is fully annihilated with more than 5,000 dead.

 And then we sang:

 We remember his death,

 We proclaim his resurrection,

 We await his coming in glory.

 Jesus, Lamb of God: have mercy on us.

 Jesus, bearer of our sins: have mercy on us.

Jesus, redeemer, redeemer of the world: give us your peace.[3]  

This striking collage-medley combines discourses of religious hymns, food rations, personal diaries, official communiqués about the glory of Soviet weaponry, and echoes of underground Siege poetry never intended for publication. From this combination a peculiar double effect emerges that blurs in a reader’s mind sensations of “presentness” (as in being “there” and “then”) and estrangement. From a retrospective point of view, radically different ways of Siege sense-making both contradict and highlight each other. This effect of multiglossia, an orchestrated chaos convincingly reproduced by Zavialov, figures in many Siege diaries. The dialogue-defying confidence of official propaganda’s language is contrasted acutely with the sublime diction of poetry that Siege subjects use as “spiritual crutches” and with the aphatic decay of Siege subjects’ consciousness from hunger, disease, and mental decline. The corruption of language in a situation of historical trauma becomes an inevitable stumbling block for anyone who engages the Siege archive: the effect of suffering on language is difficult to ignore. One can observe in the documents how hunger devours the tissues of speech as it does muscle, one grammatical category after another: gender, time, and number fade from view.

How do we sense that Zavialov’s writing is poetry? He builds his text whimsically, brutally, and yet, rigorously, through parallelisms and repetitions that engender new connections, sounding out allusions as in an echo chamber. His task is to approach the meaning and sound of a Siege liturgy. Importantly, Zavialov never imposes the form of religious harmony from outside of the historical process, retrospectively, but rather locates and develops it within the Siege existence where, as various sources demonstrate, intensity of religious practice rose dramatically. Churches functioned in the city even during the months of winter when bakeries, hospitals, and morgues “froze” in stillness.

In his attempt to find ekphrastic expression for the trauma of the Siege, Zavialov follows the Siege figurations of Elena Shvarts, often called one of the central poetic voices of the Soviet underground since the 1970s. Not long before her untimely death in 2010, Shvarts authored the cycle Portrait of the Siege through Genre, Nature-Morte, and Landscape,[4] which attempts to work with this historical material, not via discursive accumulation and sound poetry as Zavialov does, but as vision:

A twilight of rubbish splashes into the window.
The boy hunches up: he has no patience.
The boy checks the boiling pot, its gurgling sounds:
What do we have today? We have a cat!
When she asked, he said “Rabbit.”
When she ate, he laughed. Wildly, madly.
He died soon. And you on the air
Sketch with the charcoal nature morte (yes, indeed!).
A candle, a fragment of carpenter’s glue,
A bread ration, a handful of lentils.
Rembrandt! I want to live; I want to pray.
Even if turning into ice, into salt, into stone.
(“Nature Morte”)

In order to comprehend Shvarts’s imagery, it is crucial to position the event of the Siege not only within the history of “Soviet Petersburg” (Leningrad, that is) but within its aesthetic mythologies. A city of paradoxes since its conception, it combined two categories of (self-)description — “danger” and “beauty.” Within this paradigm, the Siege became the radical, nightmarish expression of this aesthetic oxymoron.

Many thousands of visual images of the besieged city were created during the Siege in every possible style and technique. Most of these strikingly daring works collect dust to this day in small historical archives of Petersburg. Studying them, one is struck by a reconceptualization of traditional genres’ meaning and significance.

For example, in the Siege diary of Tatiana Glebova, disciple of Pavel Filonov — a paradoxical and proud bearer of the traditions of Russian avant-garde — we read about her seeing new meaning in famous Flemish still lifes in the Hermitage, opulent and glimmering. Through hunger and despair, Glebova finds new meaning and new spirituality in the sensual shapes and colors of food — Shvarts addresses this longing with tragic irony. Her nature morte is one of authenticity rather than of fantasy, of painful lack rather than of dreams and white lies inducing only madness, but, principally, it’s of creative transcendence — the survivor needs only air to conjure up, to organize her somber composition. And Rembrandt appears here for good reason, omnipresent in both writing and as an influence on images that depict the Siege period: the master of the fat shadow and meager light materially existed in the city mostly in his imaginary and mnemonic manifestations. For example, while famous Rembrandts (Danae, Prodigal Son, Saskia as Flora, et al.) had been evacuated from the Hermitage in October 1941, in the winters that followed Hermitage tour guides receiving food from a sympathetic sailor or other visitor would repay this kindness by describing in florid detail the absent paintings, all the while gesturing towards their empty frames.

The dead and empty nature of the Siege existence induced visions that Shvarts sensed and reframed acutely. Shvarts’s quest to represent the Siege as an historical and aesthetic visual event, as a spectacular urban catastrophe, is strongly rooted in the sensibilities of the Siege artists: one of the most interesting creative outcomes, or products of this disaster, to use the distancing notion of Maurice Blanchot, were the hybrid diaries in which artists who had never written expressively before the Siege (and writers who had never sketched) would use the “alternate” artistic mode in order to reconstruct a creative psyche shattered by trauma. Many witnesses of their city’s undoing choose to transgress the border between the visual and the discursive, hoping thereby to preserve their impressions within the dialogic ekphrastic system where the meaning of one’s own trauma can be captured only through the voice of the other or the other voice, i.e., a sign system. (The phenomenon of the compensatory Siege account was exercised widely by the witnesses: ekphrastic diaries by Akeksandr Nikol’skii, Igor’ Chaiko, and Yakov Rubanchik have become crucial bodies of documentation of the Siege tragedy.) Compensatory language operates through detailed description of an evasive symbolic subject (i.e., the lighting of the besieged city), pervaded with traumatic associations. For Shvarts, ekphrastic writing again becomes a tool to register the surface terror of the Siege, to define this time and do so aesthetically.

One should note that in terms of reception, both Shvarts’s and Zavialov’s projects went largely unnoticed by the general reading audience. Recently, however, the following peculiar text, a revisionist Siege interpretation by Vitaly Pukhanov, turned into a media event in the Russian blogosphere:

In Leningrad, on Marata Street
In 1943
Somebody ate a plate of soup.
Thus the order of things was broken.

Two cars of militia men emerged:
You shouldn’t eat!
You’ve broken the rules!
We don’t eat meat here.

We are here in defense.
We are here counting the days of war.
We have no interest anymore
For some cat or some crow.

Terrific hunger — the murderer
Defends Leningrad today.
Terrific city — the grave-digger
Scares the enemy away.

Leningrad is disappearing
From the enemy’s vision.
Where’s the Hermitage? Where’s the Summer Garden?
Welcome to a different dimension.

Neither awake, nor dreaming
Can you be here alive?
We will win
Because we won’t eat! 

At the end of time,
Our flesh will turn into stone.
Our enemy will remember
Our transfiguration.[5]

Pukhanov’s text was one of the hottest themes in the blogosphere that week — an uncommon level of buzz for Russian poetry today. Comments were extraordinarily mixed. Some derided the poet for opening the “sacred wounds of history,” while others congratulated him, with equal ardor, on finally allowing Russian poetic diction to distance itself from the historical masquerade of sentimentality, shame, and mnemonic paralysis. Two central factors that disturbed readers the most were the poem’s form (a rhythmic pattern used usually by nursery rhymes) and its uneasy, absurdist allegorical construction of self-induced hunger. Pukhanov uses the allegory for his epistemological purposes: rather than attempt to reenter the event, he toys with it according to the rules of his provocatively ahistorical game. Reading this witty, paradoxical poem of self-induced, self-preserving cathartic experience, one learns things about Siege mythology today (a value in itself) rather than about the Siege as a historical phenomenon. And yet I see this provocation as a healthy gesture: in order to heal the wounds of Siege shame, one should treat them with an attention and humility that cannot exclude that purifying horrific laughter often evident in the texts of blokadniki themselves. These three very different ways to depict the Siege — Zavialov’s quasi-archival montage, Sharts’s morbidly beautiful spectacle as well as Pukhanov’s grotesque allegory — strike me as a very hopeful tendency towards breaking the silence and daring to look back, to speak about and to the historical trauma at the times when the state is trying again to avert its gaze from the many wounds of all kinds that it has inflicted.

 


 

1. Lev Gudkov, “Pamiat’ o voine I massovaia identichnost’ rossiian,” Neprikosnovennyi zapas (2005), 40–41.

2. Vadim Levental, “Vospalenia I izverzhenia,” Sol’ (September 27, 2010).

3. Sergey Zavialov, “Rozhdestvenskii Post,” Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie 102 (2010).

4. Elena Shvarts, “Portret blokady cherz zhanr, natiurmort i peizazh,” Dikopis’ poslednego vremeni (Saint Petersburg: Pushkinskii Fond, 2001).

5. Vitalii Pukhanov, “Kak-to utrom na rassvete,” Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie 96 (2009).

Reactions to Basil King's work

Basil King. Photo by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte.

I.

I’m flying.  Curious, in the speed of language, even when the talking seems ordinary / flat, there are echoes — wait a few lines down — words like Quasha and cumquats come up and leave, leaving floral pieces,    and   sky.    Words  a-float  ,/ ,,/ Aegean gods have a kind of influence, and there are the colorful ghosts
                                                                          dark-lined
                                                                             hovering
in and out of boxes
inhabitants of between
the                     lines
                                     where language
                                               circles

I’ve been rereading Basil King’s work
                                                             words, images
ever since
                         (since I was there, since this began, the promise, the reaction, which now, enfin, finally, I realize canNOT a be a “criticism” or “review” but just this: saying    and leaving spaces for   what   his pages   elicit (draw out / yes, dr-a-w))

from my eyes and mind and hands;     causing me to feel as if I rise above   page after page
not intoxicant
not from trickery
but in a new kind of habitation &
                                                 moving forth,
                                                                            he
                            draws the reader / the viewer (seeing / reading / seeing) this way
and other ways as
well.     He doesn’t “discover” but does reveal what the reader finds.
 
He doesn’t “discover” himself  either,   there in his pages, though, or
any place
            except   occasionally     as if he came  up
                                                                                        with   the words    for himself
but forever
inventing himself                      he seems amused
                                                             by the questions
his words and images raise.

So are we (I mean so am I, but I like to presume the plural after all these years of possibilities in the presentation of his work):  so are we amused way beyond the pleasure inherent.


II.

Paint and canvas, lost and found, names to remember, sudden conversations, inside recollections.    The surreal comes so easily because it arrives inside the (seemingly) mundane, the quiet tones of familiar conversation;  but there is Blackburn and there is Cezanne, there are Baz King’s mother and father too, and Ernest Shackleton who taught him endurance — in the environment, and Steve Jonas suddenly calling King JEW JEW;   and here is Chaucer entering so easily, and we have been on the road with Basil King and his colleagues;  and here are some theories about painting mixed into an overnight in the bushes of New York City or an ironic encounter with highway policemen in Boston.    Identity is a title, but a search for identity is not the issue of Basil King’s work.    He knows, “we know where we are going,” he knows / the speaker knows / who the speaker is, and he can include artists of long ago/  of inside his sweeping gesture.   Just as he knows dots, colors, how they can all connect.   “Paint and canvas”  :   in a few words / in pages of print and reprint / in prints of his images / Basil King gives wisdom larger than …   “War, domesticity, political injustice.”   Basil King the painter / the gardener / the   poet   comes back from “the garden of the Lost and Found” where one book began, and comes around, to tell who-will-listen / who-will-see-the-colors / who-will-join-in-a-knowing   what he can let us know over and over, with Chaucer and Marsden Hartley and “Primrose” (who is Primrose, is that Martha, to begin and end? is that another notion of roses and colors and entering rooms where there are packages that people want to lose?).    No matter what the reader cannot “know” as at a table or a conference:  ENTER the room (or the garden, or the place of “Lost and Found” or a journey from Black Mountain in North Carolina or Basil King’s childhood or NOW) …  enter, listen to the repetitions, follow, and you will find more than Basil Cohen knew, and as much as Basil King may reveal, may strew;   join him as he follows the dots.


III.

Repetition — of phrases or words — is not for music or for a cute “I am a poet” stance:  it serves musing (sometimes a-musing) and inclination.     Sometimes there is simultaneous disavowal — as if the speaker affirms and denies, or thinks and doesn’t think, or  believes and doubts.    Like in life!

Does he exist, this writer / artist?   A little boy Cohen, born in England on the verge of war (and danger, no need to point out he’s a Jew;   it comes up later in Identity anyway);   comes to the US deprived — of what he had reached high up and wasn’t allowed to keep;   but deprived over all of place and identity and meaning.   Ergo:  the play of words is a playing with words as crucial — as what there is, only — like a ground, maybe? a grounding?   Paint also.   Color is prismatic, bold, lines draw out (or in) a magic.   There is only that gesture.   (Later the lines will repeat “Paint on canvas.”)

Writing and painting were a way of establishing, grounding, creating.    Not “discovering” but revealing what is deep, what is somehow known.    Breaking the boundaries of who the boy Basil Cohen was, becoming Basil King (his father’s son, his father’s chosen name) here.     An arrival does not have to be announced.     Ideas do not have to be declared.     They are simply spoken.     Insights are quietly included.


Brooklyn Bird, from Basil King’s My Brooklyn series. Mixed media on canvas, 38" h x 50" w, 2003.

Breaking boundaries is itself a cliché that must be bro-ken.  Ken?  Yes, bro’.  (Apologies for playing along, Basil makes me/   allows me   to play!)  Corny?    So what: sew parts together:  gather all, Baz reminds you of knit — didn’t he travel with the weaving teacher? — no need to keep in stitches, not even thoughts, thoughts worth their while (worth a while, a whiling away of time or no-time) are un-even, even ragged, like good muffins or pinafores.   Hems, they skirt a few issues;  many issues return in a package of new ideas.

You require attention.   There is a fine line between cash payment and rugged (or rigid) attending.   To the minutia of most lines.   Skip a few, he won’t be mindful, but you’ll go back, as I have done, time and again (damn, another song coming to mind:  this is no singing matter or any arrangement, certainly not rhyme;  but Baz makes ideas rhyme in new rolling ways, even overboard / cap — sizing and swimming along under currents — a current of political trends, a prophesy for poetics, new art in the clime   where colors gain the roseate glow of an eastern dawn.   (Can I dare say Athenean just because I’m rereading The Odyssey while I’m rereading Basil King?)

Boiling over and yet he goes so easy.   It’s not the repetitions that make him witty, but the wit that allows even the most mundane to crackle, finger-snap.

Quick!    How to describe the rhythms of Basil King’s written work:    like alabaster mixed with the silver of blades?    No …  like alabaster or the feathered albatross?   No …  like the white of background and the dark white of a good solid ground.    Ground and sky, but smooth and rocking and then, sometimes, suddenly, jumping.   As in dot / dot / follow the dots.     Rhythms:   pastels calming into the right places for figures — even the ominous, like up from some other kind of graves, not European, the daring of dark lines where there might have been clouds now there are forms and figures as in wherever he writes these phlogesteron figures go — waft! wafting.   Yes, but they settle also.

I never know where I am when I read him (his work, maybe that is “him”) or where the lines are going, but this is (I know) something to follow.   When I am bored, I dig the hole and climb in the line and there is another ladder — or a tiny painting of someone emerging   from a box.     Not into someplace like cherry blossoms or hibiscus or clematis, but like clouds of distant spring colors / fragrances, flagrant onomatopoeia.     Basil King — how long ago — allowed not everything but some chosen things and one more — into what one finally sees is the poem and all that while you knew it was prose (and yes, you knew it was a poem) lying flat on the line.   Did they know at Black Mountain that prose and poem can be …  What did they allow?   What did they not allow?


Notes

Quoted lines taken from the following works by Basil King:

Identity: Text and Art by Basil King (Cathedral Station, NY: Spuyten Duyvil, 1998)
Learning to Draw / A History
, ed. Daniel Staniforth (Skylight Press, 2011)
“Prologue,” from {poems} Basil King
Warp Spasm
(Cathedral Station, NY: Spuyten Duyvil, 2001)

Avant-Latino poetry

Left to right: J. Michael Martinez (photo by Jensen Larson Photography), Rosa Alcalá (photo by Josh Bowen), and Rodrigo Toscano.

When Vladimir Mayakovsky memorably proclaimed that “without revolutionary form, there is no revolutionary art,” and Renato Poggioli wrote that “the avant-garde image originally remained subordinate, even within the sphere of art, to the ideals of a radicalism which was not cultural but political,”[1] and Marjorie Perloff (now famously) asked “what if, despite the predominance of tepid and unambitious Establishment poetry, there were a powerful avant-garde that takes up, once again, the experimentation of the early twentieth century?,”[2] they weren’t talking about the current work of a new cohort of Latino/a poets who transect extrusions of renegotiated identity consciousness within extremities of conceptual aesthetics.

But, in retrospect, they kind of could have been.

Developments within the past seven or eight years have vastly exceeded the extent of experimental inquiry that had ever existed before in US Latino/a poetry. What by now can be legitimately regarded as an emergent generation of younger Latino/a poets is taking to task the inheritance of academic Latino/a identity and, by gaming its language, rendering this tensile form more pliant in order to better fit the identity of the layered, contested, and changing Latino/a subject in the contemporary world. These poets, by exploring the limits of poetry as well as Latino/a identity through a diversity of aesthetic and cultural incursions in their writing, articulate a new Latino/a poetry that in turn proposes a new view of Latino/a identity, one that grants more agency to divers potentialities than to conformist restrictions imposed from the past: a condition I regard as the avant-Latino.

J. Michael Martínez’s Walt Whitman Award–winning collection Heredities (2010) combines various aesthetic approaches — allusion to colonial manuscripts, juxtaposition of anatomic diagrams, disembodied dialectic, parataxis — to deconstruct the mythologies that had previously defined the foundations of Chicano/a identity. In the poem “Binding of the Reeds: The Banishment of Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl,” Martínez presents a new way to regard the Toltec myth of Topiltzin, the tenth-century ruler of the Toltecs. Topiltzin, with his four possible fathers (some divine, some earthly), a historical figure at times recorded as one and the same as Quetzalcoatl, the godly plumed serpent, is distinguished in the Toltec codices as the ruler who abandoned the practice of human sacrifice in spiritual ceremonies. The historical uncertainties of Topiltzin’s existence, lineage, and even era are factors of his legacy reconstituted by Martínez’s poetics of indeterminacy. The poem begins with an epigraph from the sixteenth-century missionary Fray Diego Durán, who seems to confirm the deistic qualities of Topiltzin. The poem itself, spatialized on the page, takes on five distinct parts, insinuating the Five Suns of the world’s history according to Aztec eschatology. (And with vertical dividing lines to add to the effect, it looks a lot like something Apollinaire or Mallarmé might do.) The middle sections in italics denote interactions between the longer myth’s main characters, a story of betrayal and spite. The left and right sides of the page separate, in narratological terms, discourse and story,[3] in other words, what happened and what is recorded. The upper left reads: 

No longer the human
frame for world’s sake
bones    the weight
and bend of sacrifice
my life   for the sky’s fall
between this long dying
flesh in war against flesh
to you I tell in vision
and glance once gone

The corresponding right reads:

He writes: 

                and the dead speak:
relentless horizon: unwilled harrow:

                spindle through the lake
that is wind
                & lineage:

solstice spilled
                 on stone:[4]

The intertextual reference to Fray Durán, alongside the phrasal fragments and use of colons to separate images, takes a Poundian form, that of the Cantos Pound — the poetry coheres through a series of disjunctive sutures — demonstrating what Perloff means by her question about taking up the experimentation of the early twentieth century. This is an ideogrammic method applied to Mesoamerican mythology. The poem is crammed with vagueness, and its strokes lend only the slightest impression of its context.

Take as another example Martínez’s seven-part, seven-page poem “Aporia,” which begins with the following section:

[1] The Signified Seeks the Body

I said, The Chicano shapes identity like an icicle fingering down from the roof’s edge. Pushing the hair back from your face, you said, Yes, translucence freezes about its own boundaries, declaring the noun from the water. I said, The name seeks to root in the arterial cavity; the tendons turn from the blood like foreshadowing.[5]

All seven parts of this prose poem proceed in this manner of disembodied dialectic — an indeterminate I and an indeterminate you — thereby expressing the feeling of doubt denoted by the title and asserting identity in essentially interrogative terms, rendering the affirmation of identity as interstitial. The three sentences, less a thesis-antithesis-synthesis than a Grecian strophe-antistrophe-epode, treat the nominal subject of Chicano/a identity with indirect gestures and invoke metaphors that are wholly unfamiliar. The first sentence likens the growth of Chicano/a consciousness to ice pulled down by gravity, a far cry from the hot-blooded, tropical clichés to which we’re so accustomed. The second sentence distinguishes water from “the noun” it forms as it freezes, treating water as a dynamic, the whole phenomenon a reminder of how fluid and translucent identity invariably is. The third sentence avoids the term heart and its wealth of connotations, opting instead for the more surgical “arterial cavity,” emphasizing corporeality, while the ambiguity in the word “turn” and the disconnect that hinges in the word “foreshadowing” leave one with a feeling akin to synesthesia. In this vein (sorry), the poem concludes with the following section:

[7] History Gathers in the Name We Never Are

You said, An infinity with origin is the speech you foster. I said, I don’t speak Spanish, I am Hispanic. You said, Pan hisses in the center, the Gods rise like bread from the noun; our syntax is the bond to the divinity we are. I said, Sin taxes the soul, the name; our grammar is a construct of guilt. You said, Teach the children to read the sin. I pick up my coat, empty the pockets of lint, pennies. Icicles finger down from the roof’s edge.[6]

Like Martínez’s Heredities, Rosa Alcalá’s collection Undocumentary (2008) invokes multiplicity and indeterminacy in its construction of a new Latino/a poetic. Richly textured with abstractions and visual arrangements, Undocumentary blends the connotations of “documentary” and “undocumented” to suggest an intercourse between genres as well as classes. The title poem of the collection includes the lines

Keys strike against
the footage of the past
to defer the weight
of the camera

Asking, who is
the scab of me
when no meatpacking walkout
can suffice?[7]

Like Martínez’s poems, Alcalá’s poem sidesteps directness, ironically through the presentation of particulars; there is no reason akin to syllogism that unites theme and specifics — the poetics in operation are of suggestion. Furthermore, there is double entendre everywhere; keys, strike, footage, weight, scab, and meatpacking are all words with simultaneous, multiplicitous meanings, and the stanzas lean on these confusions. Engaging avant-Latino poetics, the ambiguities brought about by the poem’s vocabulary — and ending with an interrogative statement — branch out in Deleuzean rhizomatic dimensions,[8] performing a gamut of insinuations that all tangentially pertain to class concerns grounded in the Latino/a context that Alcalá and her chapbook establish ipso facto.

Alcalá ends her collection with the poem “Job #4”:

How to transcribe tragedy?
(A secretary, a good secretary, asks.)

Do I use a dictation machine?
Look blankly at the boss
and let fingers for a moment feel
reproach? How can I plan my wedding
as I cross out crutch words? When will I depill
my jacket? When everyone is dead
will the droopy bow of compliance
get caught in the material
of inquiry? There is no line of escape,
holidays are finite systems
blurring supermarket cake
into rising
rent. The body, charged
with documentation, has its own shorthand:
now the turncoat gland, now the gut’s
tactlessness. What’s the worry?
The transcript never gets read
for what it is: a stutter relieved
of spare consonants,
the art of rote aversion.[9]

Here Alcalá enacts an important aspect of the avant-Latino: that of being a discourse that is not centrally, or even nominally, or even peripherally, Latino/a. The circumstances of cultural identity and context are available to the reader, but the poem exhibits no urge to posture in an inherited, ethnocentric discourse of oppression; there is a latent sense of gender conflict, but even this is intuited rather than explicit. In her essay “Avant-Garde or Borderguard: (Latino) Identity in Poetry,” Maria Damon claims that while “poetry as a discourse enables subjectivist expression, this does not mean that people simply talk about their experiences, but that they create experience and subjectivity in the process of meaning-making, of poeisis.”[10] In “Job #4,” Alcalá transforms a rich philosophical question into a minute sliver of ostensible experience, reversing the dynamic of Proustian digression; Alcalá moves from big to small, synthesizing the sum of questions into a surprising conclusion: “the art of rote aversion.” Her poem, as is true of the whole of Undocumentary, plays with metonymy and synecdoche. She crafts bits and pieces of language, thoughts, and what feel like experiences into a part-for-the-whole representation that the reader can glean is not totally accurate in scale. It often feels like the book is stone sober in its faithful representation of issues you can’t quite put your finger on. In Undocumentary, Alcalá’s invocation of the cinematic is supported by a style reminiscent of Eisensteinian montage — that is to say, the clarity of the image and the drama of the cut stand out more than the substance of a story.

The conflation of artistic genres within conceptual Latino/a poetry is most dynamically presented in Rodrigo Toscano’s Collapsible Poetics Theater (2008), where the text doubles as poetry and stage directions, emphasizing subversive ideas such as “social-psychological crisis,” the “trans-modern,” and the drive to “recombine” paradigms of thought along a proletarian historical continuum. Selected by Marjorie Welish for the National Poetry Series, Collapsible Poetics Theater has been publicly performed — with ensemble performers holding scripts in their hands, thereby not truly embodying the text and hence not deeply performing it. But setting aside critical judgment of its public performance, the written text of Collapsible Poetics Theater as a transcript of hybridities — hybridities of genres, languages, and politics — is remarkably subversive and thoughtful. As Carlos Gallego has noted (before Collapsible Poetics Theater was published, granted), “Toscano’s poetry, rather than reinforce conventional notions of what is understood as the Chicana/o experience, questions the ideological necessity for such identity reinforcement.”[11]

Consider the part of Collapsible Poetics Theater called “Pig Angels of the Americlypse: An Anti-Masque for Four Players.” By calling it an “anti-masque,” Toscano signals that this will invert the proportions of a traditional Jonsonian masque by paring down the set and amplifying the dialogue. And by beginning with stage directions (opening with the assertion that the players “can be of any age, gender, or accent”[12]), the piece immediately introduces a salient power dynamic laced with a wryness evocative of Beckett: a subversive authority meting out instructions that commence the play before the play can commence. Then there’s a dimension of visual poetics, instructed by the statement that “Text in {brackets} is either contact zone/stage instructions or translation of text {not to be pronounced during performance},”[13] distinguishing a hierarchy of reading when this book is regarded as poetry. The spoken parts immediately introduce code switching between English and Spanish; the play hinges on absurdities rendered through translation (e.g. “puercos […] sin destino” meaning “pigs without destiny”), the discourse working toward the statement that “Se busca (por lo mínimo) un Brasileiro mas Mexicano que un Argentino gringo” “looking (at least) for a Brazilian more Mexican than an Argentine gringo.”[14] As the text of an anti-masque, the dialogue is essentially anti-dialogue, building images from a palette of multilayered Latino/a sensibility that resists meaning in the manner of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry of Bruce Andrews or Steve McCaffrey. Of this kind of radical poetry, Ming Qian Ma argues that “the risk of losing meaning as such, to the extent that it is a critique of meaning, has to be absolute or irreversible; and the getting beyond the established meaning, insofar as it is a questioning of the productive mechanisms of meaning, precludes any promise or possibility of a return to meaning.”[15] And while it is certainly true that Toscano’s collapsible poetry does mutate through variances of non-meaning, his “Pig Angels of the Americlypse” ends on a note that sums up quite well the new poetics of the avant-Latino, even if spoken in switching codes suitably uncertain in its tenor:

{P1} The way out?
{P2} Art goes art goes
{P3} Away …
{P2} And back …
{P1} In …
{P3} And out …
{P4} “Yo persigo una forma que no encuentra mi estilo,
              botón de pensamiento que busca ser la rosa” —

               I pursue a form that doesn’t find my style,
               mind’s stem that strives to be the rose
{P2} Contrive
                                              identity
                the themelets
                                              variate
{P3} Se busca …
{P1} Songlets of sorts, yeah?
{P4} Yeah …
{P2} Mm hmm …[16]


1. Renato Poggioli, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1981), 9.

2. Marjorie Perloff, 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (Malden: Blackwell Manifestos, 2002), 4.

3. Patrick Colm Hogan, Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists (New York: Routledge, 2003), 115.

4. J. Michael Martínez, Heredities (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010), 24.

5. Ibid., 11.

6. Ibid., 17.

7. Rosa Alcalá, Undocumentary (San Marcos: Dos Press, 2008), n.p.

8. Gilles Deleuze Gilles and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 2004), 7.

9. Alcalá, Undocumentary, n.p.

10. Maria Damon, “Avant-Garde or Border Guard: (Latino) Identity in Poetry,” American Literary History 10, no. 3 (1998): 479.

11. Carlos Gallego, “From Identity to Situatedness: Rodrigo Toscano and the New Chicana/o Poetics,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 32, no. 2 (2007): 130.

12. Rodrigo Toscano, Collapsible Poetics Theater (Albany: Fence Books, 2008), 35.

13. Ibid., 36.

14. Ibid.

15. Ming-Quian Ma, Poetry as Re-Reading: American Avant-Garde Poetry and the Poetics of Counter-Method (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 175–76.

16. Toscano, Collapsible Poetics Theater, 4.

This poem is a song an act a work of love

Taggart and repetition

Taggart’s “Slow Song for Mark Rothko” from ‘Peace on Earth’ (Turtle Island, 1981).

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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.’”[4]

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.[5]

 

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.”[6] 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[7]

 

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.[8]

 

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:

The Chinese

 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.[9]

 

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

 from them

 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.[10]

 

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

 seventh string

 Sainte Columbe added a string to the viol

 six

 six + one

 added a vibration

 six vibrations

 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

 became inward

 secret

 inward and secret destination.[11]

 

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?”[12] 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[13]

 

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

 you love

 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

 quiet

 and unheard/cannot be heard over the white noise steady roar of the

churned

 up white water[14]

 

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,

 a song.

              That was to be

 of a like monotony.

                                       (A grace

 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.

 A song.

 And of you the sign now, surely, of a gross

 perpetuity

                             (which is not reluctant, or if it is,

 it is no longer important.

 A song.

 Which one sings, if he sings it,

 with care.[15]

 

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.”[16] Unacknowledged is the grace received at that moment from Creeley’s poem about “a girl so bright/in bloom who rejoices the heart.”[17] 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

 the tenses

 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

 act

 a work of love[18]

 

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.”[19] 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.

2. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 131.

3. At Shippensburg University, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, April 7, 2001.

4. John Taggart, “A Preface,” in Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press), 71–72.

5. Taggart, Is Music: Selected Poems, ed. Peter O’Leary (Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2010), 35.

6. Taggart, Songs of Degrees, 72.

7. Taggart, There Are Birds (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2008), 23.

8. Taggart, Is Music, 203.

9. Ibid., 273.

10. Ibid., 275.

11. Taggart, When the Saints (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, 1999), 24.

12. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: 1 (New York: Penguin, 1960), 2589.

13. Taggart, Is Music, 256.

14. Ibid., 309; note the lineation quoted reproduces the text in There Are Birds, 83–4. The text in the Copper Canyon edition is inaccurate.

15. Robert Creeley, The Collected Poems 1945–1975 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 112.

16. Taggart, Is Music, 310.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., 311–2.

19. Robert Duncan, “Introduction,” in Dodeka (Milwaukee: Membrane Press, 1979), v.

Shadow memory shadows music

Contextualized notes on John Taggart’s prosody

Part 1: Contexts for John Taggart’s prosody

John Taggart asks his readers to read his poems aloud. You could take this with varying degrees of seriousness. You could take it as a naïve or wistful resurgence of nostalgia. Or it may emphasize the importance of a highly original form of prosody, perhaps with links to several stages of interaction in linguistic evolution, practical literacy, and poetry in general at a time when it could be seen both as a deeply troubled art and an art with more potential than most of its practitioners realize. If this sounds hyperbolic, I’d like to point out a major cultural and linguistic shift which is too large to discuss in this essay. With the printing technologies of the Industrial Revolution, the immense growth of population and the rapid spread of literacy that accompanied industrialization, silent reading became more common, and silent readers read at speeds that had nothing to do with speech. It is possible that this introduced major shifts in communication and perception, as did the advent of literacy in one epoch and the invention of printing from moveable types in another. But we don’t need to go into such difficult and large-scale speculation to understand that the most basic groundwork of poetry, an art which had been solely defined by patterns of sound from the preliterate days when oral-formulaic composition held societies together, had irrevocably changed with the changes in reading practice. One of the factors in the growing experimentalism in poetry between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries may be seen as a response to the waning of the many facets of sound in reading.

During the period from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, John Taggart developed a dynamic prosody, some of its elements derived from music of different eras, some from the practices of other poets, some through combining several techniques he developed himself. Initially, Taggart was building up a vocabulary of acoustic patterns. Later, he would combine many of them in such a way as to make the combination part of the art. In the general literary environment, the number of diverse “poetic” methods in practice, and the number of poets working in them, had become so large that it seems unlikely anyone could keep track of them all, or see much that all of them held in common. Some poets moved partly or completely away from the sonic base of traditional poetry, composing sequences of lines whose breaks had no significance other than looking like those of older forms of poetry, writing a growing number of different types of prose poems, or seeing the basis of poetry as motivation — as a type of sentiment or a special utterance proceeding from an “exalted state of mind” or from “heightened perception” or as a means of exploring referentiality or “interrogating” various forms of language and its uses or as a vehicle for recording personal epiphanies or as an art based in certain types of “image,” either created in the imagination by the suggestive capacity of words or by literal images on the page. Some of the confusing nature of different forms of prosody as the twentieth century moved on may be suggested by poets who took the same sources in different directions. Outside most of Taggart’s antecedents, Beat poets and some Projectivists (e.g. Joel Oppenheimer) evolved long lines inspired and informed by Bop jazz. It’s almost impossible to notate the precise jazz parallels of these poets, but it’s not difficult to hear if you’re familiar enough with the music and the poetry it suggested. Taggart took ideas from the same jazz musicians, but with results that bear virtually no resemblances to the prosody of other poets who worked from the same sources. Many of those who did not follow any of these directions concentrated on sound properties which had not been explored in previous periods, or tried to work with sonic properties from ancient or non-Western sources. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just say that those most important to Taggart cultivated a sense of what many of them called “musicality” as a base for their prosody.

In his early work, Taggart became increasingly adept at a number of different types of musicality. He was particularly fluent in those that had evolved from the work of poets with a strong background in actual musical practice, and to some extent, those disciplined in traditional verse forms. He developed his ear from Louis Zukofsky, part of whose prosody evolved from music, and from the poetry of HD, who had a rigorous background, beginning early, in classical Greek verse. Robert Duncan, like Zukofsky, with reinforcement from Ezra Pound, had ears trained in music and in classic prosody. Taggart could also pick up on recently invented rhythms, such as those which Robert Creeley created with short lines and “syncopated” line breaks, with variations (melodically neutral to complex) between the breaks. Duncan and Creeley worked out highly individualized procedures while taking part in the development of the more general Projective Verse initiated by Charles Olson: their multi-tiered practice suggesting some of the dynamics of invention which the drive for a viable and evolving musicality encouraged. Perhaps above all, Taggart adapted ideas from his own listening to music from European traditions beginning in the medieval era and encompassing those of American jazz. In the later part of this early period, Taggart not only developed new forms, but he combined them with older forms, and even with the hybrids that resulted.

Taggart worked with memory in ways few other poets did at the time. His use of memory worked through characteristics of composition and of reading at a time when poetry was redefining itself. In using forms of prosody which are insistently aural, Taggart moved away from the ethereal and abstract character which silent reading implied and fostered. A silent reader can enter a “personal space” which can have special qualities and characteristics. Such personal space does not duplicate the character of reading aloud, but creates new dimensions of reading and new opportunities for writers and for readers. Like freedom from received forms and fixed definitions of poetry, these dimensions become new areas to explore. Yet if a writer who expects the “audience” to read silently does not take this space into consideration during composition, the poem can become more like the consumer items that people in our society take for granted and which can eat away not only the consumer goods themselves but the society around them. In practices such as printing books, I was doing something like asking readers to read the poems aloud: I was making the books that subtly insisted on their tactile qualities and other cues to handmade origin, partially in order to fight against the deadening effects of a social and economic order that had no place for poetry. Taggart was making poems tangible by composing them for vocalization; and even for the sense or memory of vocalization if the poems were read silently. This was particularly important in an environment where people seldom read aloud and often were scarcely aware of poems as constructs that could be heard.

The complexity of Taggart’s prosody at this time is one of the reasons why he is particularly justified in asking his “readers” to read his poems aloud. Reading them in addition to hearing them augments and emphasizes their sonic complexity. If members of Taggart’s “audience” do not read and hear the poems, they probably won’t catch many of the sonic layers in the poetry. They will miss other layers of significance, too. In the long run, it is possible that Taggart will emerge as a pivotal or transitional figure in larger changes in poetry. If so, although it may seem paradoxical, it may be particularly important for poets deliberately and consciously working with the “space” and “unspecified time frames” of silent reading to read Taggart aloud. They may better understand what they are doing by understanding what they’re discarding or ignoring. If my speculations about silent reading prove untenable, using the concepts I put forward as a heuristic device may have some value in calling attention to sound properties of poetry, if nothing else. Certainly, however, continuing to ignore major possibilities opened up by silent reading and the abandonment of received forms is an unfortunate waste.

Although I was interested in Taggart’s use of memory in formulating a new prosody, and worked with related ideas and principals, neither of us was doing work that derived from the other. Even when we picked up ideas from the same musical sources, the results were significantly different, and only distantly related in the finished poems. Still, the fact that we were both working with related principles gives me a place from which to consider Taggart’s work. Since prosody is in itself a difficult area to explore in an environment of change and loss of constants, use of “memory” as an element of verse in a field where even “musicality” is undefined, if not ignored, seems particularly useful.

*

My first contact with Taggart began with an exchange of letters in regard to his magazine, Maps, in the late 1960s. This was after I began publishing books using mimeo machines in 1966, but before I went through my apprenticeship in offset printing, beginning in 1970. I had planned to set up a cottage industry as the center of activities, specifically literary to generally sociopolitical. I made the first payments on a house within easy walking distance of the second largest academic library in the state, in a neighborhood in Milwaukee that included writers, artists, musicians, scholars, and activists, with a healthy compliment of co-ops and other related ventures, including an automobile mechanics’ collective and a full clinic. I bought my own press a year later, and producing books became integrated with everything else that happened in the house. In the next move, I cofounded the Water Street Arts Center with Pat Wagner in 1972. This went through a number of experimental stages perhaps best marked by changes in personnel, with Pat leaving in 1975, and the hiring of Karl Gartung as store manager in 1977, when funding for the purpose became available. With Gartung, I cofounded its heir, Woodland Pattern Book Center, at the end of the decade.[1]

The decentralized cottage industry approach had plenty of cognates and antecedents. Some new dimensions were just coming into possibility, and some have particular relevance now. In this period, for instance, people had begun to talk about practical solutions to environmental problems, including the use of recycled paper. Most recycled papers available then as now weren’t much better for the environment than virgin pulp stock. I was one of a very, very small number of printers of any sort who produced books on truly responsible papers. Working the way I did was one of the few ways I could find out what papers were good, and which simply used the jargon of environmentalism as a sales device. In the 1970s, the best papers, which tended to be difficult to work with, needed empirical testing. For the most part, they did not get it. HTML coding did get the widespread testing by an adequate number of people on “the bleeding edge” of the tech, albeit it in a completely different way and for different reasons, in the 1990s. I began writing this essay at the end of 2012, the hottest year on record, with massive floods, melting polar ice aided by oil drilling, and legions of other ecological malpractices and disasters. I’d like to see a surge in understanding of the complexity of environmental issues, and how much they depend on integrating as much of that understanding as possible into the fabric of daily life — but it’s probably being unreasonably optimistic to hope for that. Should I bother to mention the collapse of the middle class and the rapid growth of neofeudalism?

I wanted writing, publishing, and other literary activities integrated in the same holistic, human-scale, internationally connected but not centrally controlled exchange system I tried to create in the cottage industry paradigm. Among other dimensions of practice, that meant I was trying to avoid becoming a member or adherent of any of the literary schools which were becoming more rigid and removed from each other. I wanted to develop as extensive a vocabulary of methods and goals as possible. I saw America’s multicultural base expanding rapidly, and wanted to create a poetry that reflected this diversity by working, on one hand, with multiple literary and artistic cultures from their origins to their latest development; and, on the other hand, with the resources of a century of European and American avant-gardes which also seemed to be gathering momentum.

In publishing, as in writing, I tried, and continue to try, to combine pluralism and concentration. During the period when John Taggart was developing his prosody to its most complex, most of the books I published were by a relatively small number of people. I published more than one book by half of them, and worked with them on related literary efforts. Some, such as Barbara Einzig and Toby Olson, may relate to the whole project (and Olson may have been a friend of Taggart’s), but they didn’t form a direct and meaningful part of a literary continuum with him. Others did, but in different degrees. Jerome Rothenberg covered nearly a complete spectrum of innovative modes; however, the affinities between his work and Taggart’s are abstract, and may be strong or may not exist at all, depending on how you see invention and the reuse of the work of artistic antecedents. Jackson Mac Low and bpNichol related to each other in exploring visual dimensions of language and in different approaches to sound poetry and performance art. Theodore Enslin approached verse composition from a musical background, but did so in a way that was not immediately audible to those who did not understand his training, practice, methods, and antecedents. Taggart stood between Mac Low and Nichol on one hand and Enslin on the other. Taggart produced poetry based in musical invention, as did Enslin, but though his musical devices were more immediately noticeable than Enslin’s, he did not move into song or sound poetry, as did Mac Low and Nichol. In deciding whom to publish, I was not thinking only, or even primarily, of prosody as such; but it seems important to note how much differences and similarities in such practices follow differences and similarities in other areas. It also seems important how many types of artistic spectra a relatively small number of poets who don’t belong to a single movement can suggest or reveal.

The practice of publishing multiple works in multiple forms by the same writers is part of what I called “triangulation:” presenting the work of poets from more than one point of view, and as contextualized and interrelated with whatever might enhance it and make it not only more dynamic, but, perhaps paradoxically, more fully itself. A partial description of this practice appears in the introduction to “Some Volumes of Poetry.” I can sketch the activities of one version of the process easily enough in Taggart’s case: I wrote several reviews of his work, published poems, self-commentary, and a bibliography in a magazine, published two books, Dodeka and Dehiscence, which seemed to mark major transition points in his development, arranged readings for him, published an audio tape of him reading,[2] and commissioned him to edit a symposium. When possible, I arranged for other people to write about the work of those I published; I asked those I published to comment on what they were doing themselves; and commissioned them to write about, edit, and create group commentary on other poets and artists — both to contribute to a broader literary ecosystem, and also to try to encourage each writer to sharpen his or her sense of their own work by the way they interacted with their peers.

I not only wrote about poets I published and asked them to write commentary, primarily for Margins magazine; I also started a symposium series there. The series didn’t last long, and I arranged for the publication of about half the symposiums I started or commissioned in other magazines after Margins folded. In these, I was as concerned with guest and coeditors or with characteristics they shared or developed as I was with the subjects. In Taggart’s symposium on Ted Enslin, which I arranged for publication in Truck magazine after Margins collapsed,[3] I hoped that the two poets would find contributors who would explore interrelations between contemporary poetry and music. In the last symposium, on Tom Phillips, Ian Tyson, and Joe Tilson, guest edited by Kevin Power, I gave an extra push by subtitling it “Between Poetry and Painting.”

Despite numerous problems, some of the symposiums worked better than even I expected: although the series didn’t go on long enough for me to be able to sell it as a package to a publisher such as Twaine, material and ideas from most installments continues to be used, often enough in unconventional ways or unexpected places. In 2005, Ron Silliman acknowledged precisely what I had hoped the guest editors would gain: “It was Karl who originally invited me to edit a special issue of Margin[s] on the poetry of Clark Coolidge, which more than anything made me conscious of the value of being able to talk & write critically about new modes of poetry.”[4]


Part 2: John Taggart’s prosody in practice

My first publication related to John Taggart was a 1974 review of Pyramid Canon,[5] a portion of The Pyramid Is a Pure Crystal,[6] in Margins magazine. My correspondence with Taggart had become important and detailed by ’74. Going by a list of publications for Stations magazine which appears to have been compiled by Taggart himself, the Pyramid review was one of the first regarding his poetry published anywhere. The next year, I published Three Poems Beginning with Lines by HD and an essay, which I believe was part of his doctoral dissertation, in Stations magazine.[7]

The poems in Stations show some of the first level of musicality I appreciated. I had seen some of the more innovative work Taggart was beginning, but at this stage I was happy with the milder lyricism of these poems. Here is a passage from “Tsuzumi,” the second of the three poems, suggesting the musicality that people familiar with HD and Louis Zukofsky would appreciate:

They are ghosts

 And are still separate, charms past use

They have no meeting together,

 Ghosts moving their sleeves

 To the sound of the drum

 

In addition to the lyricism of such passages, this set of poems includes some hints at practices Taggart would extend later, such as individualized forms of repetition, near repetition, and syncopated line breaks:

Yellow circle yellow circle, yellow circles
Touch, fill a white square.

*

In composing Pyramid Is A Pure Crystal, Taggart had used physical models for the disposition of words, and was doing something similar with Dodeka.[8] Perhaps the graphic nature of the two books echoes the three-dimensional space of the models.

Dodeka,[9] much like Pyramid Is A Pure Crystal, included pages with printed sets of rectangular boxes surrounding brief lines in large type that seemed to push or be constricted by their boxes. Longer passages in freer lineation and smaller type followed each set of boxes. We called the texts in the boxes “arias” to distinguish them from the longer passages which Taggart called “unisons.”

The arias made sonic use of the short lines and the varying degree to which they followed or worked against the natural progression of the text. Here is the first aria, presented without the box-frame and large type:

Face cut: seeds spill

 seeds within seeds

 on fire, white sparks

 in a dark house.

 

Taggart does not continue the use of an identical number of syllables in these four lines through the other arias, but the even line length helps keep this first one from some of the greater strain in many that follow. The line breaks don’t work as strongly against the sense of the text as some of those that follow, either, but there is enough stress in the breaks to create the base of a rhythm for this brief poem. Some of that rhythm comes from the emphasis the line breaks place on the words on both sides of the breaks. If the line breaks weren’t enough, internal phrase breaks and punctuation add more. Although Taggart is using the sparse punctuation which will become more important to him later, he carefully marks internal breaks in the first and third lines with a colon and a comma. Since this is a relatively smooth passage, the symmetry of the first and third line internally breaking in the middle balances nicely.

This poem’s syntactic construction includes some moderate ambiguities. Do seeds spill seeds within seeds, or is “seeds within seeds” an amplification of “seeds spill”? Each new line adds a bit of surprise and may initially suggest that someone reading the poem aloud back up and reconsider phrases before deciding on a final reading. Frequently, the need to go back over a phrase creates a pattern, and one in which the phrase may include a variation in the repetition. The ambiguities suggest a pace for reading, whether silently or aloud.

Bearing more traditional poetry in mind, alliteration adds to the poem: the massed s sounds in the first two lines continue in the third, but disappear in the fourth. This bears a slight resemblance to a device used in Old Norse verse, where the release from repeated consonants is as pleasant and as dynamic as their initial repetition. However, there is a near-rhyme in “sparks” and “dark,” and this device helps clinch the image of sparks in a dark house, whether the image seems sinister or pleasant, whether the reader understands the seeds in the poem as suggesting those which return Persephone to the underworld each year, or the home stores of harvest, or a serious autumnal ritual, or even something as odd as the current observance of Halloween.

The first unison begins with these lines:

Eyes on fire

 burn bright, eyes on fire burn, eyes

 eat

 their love.

 Fire eyes cut earth face

                                                  spill seeds

 seeds like dice, like wine

                                                  seeds pour out, then die

 white sparks in fire’s light,

 dark in dark house.

 

It’s hard not to notice the words and phrases repeated from the first aria. Something important is happening in these repetitions. Many devices used in poetry depend on memory of sounds. If you didn’t remember sounds, you wouldn’t be able to hear rhyme or alliteration, for instance. But a fair amount of time passes between some of the words and phrases in the arias and their repetition in the unisons. This is quite different from what we usually think of as traditional forms of prosody. The poet can create a number of sonic patterns and long-scale tonalities by letting the sounds blur or by pushing the reader to strain a little to remember the previous similarity in sound. For some, memory across time can create a haunting effect; for others, it can create a sense of space.

Words not found in the first aria come from other arias. This will become stronger as the work moves through its arias and unisons, so that it creates patterns of repetition within repetition and cumulative interrelations on top of them. “Waves breaking” and “law breaking,” for instance, can echo and reverberate between each other as they create multiple layers of significance, reinforced by checks and tensions of repetition and variation in a repetitive framework.

At this time, and with this poem, some of the musicality developed by Zukofsky and Duncan came into play, though not in a heavy-handed or overbearing manner. Near repetitions (something that will become more important later) and exact repetition play significant roles. The way “eyes on fire burn” appears with a variation at the beginning, and immediately prepares for a transition, is a good example of the way variation on repetition moves out of the strictures of the unisons’ sonic patterns into a freer cascade of sound.

With this work, Taggart was using several different forms of prosody at once. That doesn’t just mean different conventional devices such as alliteration and assonance, but syncopated line breaks and several types of repetition and near-repetition — and playing those in the arias and unisons against each other. Our most serious correspondence regarding method apparently began in 1974, regarding The Pyramid Is A Pure Crystal. I’m not sure when we arranged to publish Dodeka, but my notes suggest that it was before Taggart completed writing it. Whenever it was, I was thoroughly enthusiastic, and published the book in 1979.

*

I have mentioned the importance of using the reader or hearer’s memory in relation to repetition in Dodeka. By the time I published the book, I had been working with related principals for a number of years. Though related, and similar in some general properties, our sources and purposes were significantly different. A Book of Questions and Goddesses[10] was one of the places where I tried a number of different approaches to what I sometimes called “acoustic memory” and “shadow memory.” This line of development, and the terminology I used for it, was exploratory, casual, a personal usage, not something I wanted to stress so much that whatever I did became entangled in it, or in an inadequate understanding of it. That meant I could keep it loose and didn’t have to get lost in defining it too rigorously while I was working with it. I used “acoustic memory” for the phenomenon generally, and at times for situations where the reader or hearer would tend to remember phrases, lines, or patterns more precisely, since there wouldn’t be much time between one iteration and another. “Shadow memory” I used for situations in which more time had passed and memory could play different roles. Memory could be less distinct, for instance, or it could make stronger demands on the reader or listener. In Questions and Goddesses, memory had multiple purposes. In prosody plain and simple, I wanted to experiment with different types of acoustic memory for aesthetic purposes, and would have wanted to do so whether they served any other purpose. But in this work, they did serve other purposes: in the first part of the book, sources from the period of the Spanish conquest of Mexico apparently carried memories of previous layers of myth, cultural evolution, and even conquests by other indigenous tribes. I added suggestions of the music of the European conquerors. Acoustic memory did not have to exclusively involve memory within a single poem, but in some instances just might include memory of sound patterns in other poems and other arts or environments. Among the few limitations was the avoidance of confusion of acoustic memory with allusion or quotation. In this book, I kept the source material guiding whatever I did with it, in part to keep the shadows and echoes coming from the right places. Still, I didn’t want to pretend that this was an unalloyed reiteration of the poetry of indigenous Mesoamerica, or anything but a twentieth-century Euro-American response, appreciation, and acknowledgement.

In the first section of the book, I took work by Giovanni Gabrieli as a European musical model to interact with the way I set up repeated indigenous source passages. I used strongly separated repetitions along with the type of call and response arranged for the choir lofts of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. The time it takes to get to a repetition puts as much strain and provides simultaneously as delicate and as large a scale melodic pattern as I could manage with shadow memory from a unit which would take about fourteen minutes to read aloud. This section was made up of three such units, and I hoped that some of the audience would pick up at least a few shadows between the units as well as the shadows within each of them.[11]


A Book of Questions and Goddesses, 
from Middle American Dialogues,
 by Karl Young.

The following brief passage from a much simpler and closer pattern seems a good example of use of basic acoustic memory:

the sleeper sleeps

 here is the woman

 the sleeper sleeps

 she has rolled him up in her hand

 here is the woman

 the sleeper sleeps

 she has rolled him up in her hand

 here is the woman

 I am the sleeper

 

Questions and Goddesses works with sources from Mesoamerica. In the first example, I was trying to make use of shadow memory in playing off several forms of duality and dualism, worked against the more or less contemporary music of the conquerors. Depending on the audience, and the reading, this could create a sense of ceremony with a melancholy undercurrent or a set of mazes with echoes in their passages. The second example could create a sense of magic as well as suggestions of ritual. In the first section, the ceremonial dimensions suggest enclosure; in the second, repetition and echo can suggest procession, whether to a shrine-like destination or for the purpose of delineating a meaningful area by passing across or around it. Throughout the book, the different forms of repetition, including repetition of phrases and use of shadow memory, gave me perhaps a dozen significant variations to explore.[12]

By the time I published Dodeka, Taggart had moved on to his most expansive use of memory-and-repetition, and combined it with most of the other acoustic techniques he had worked with so far. Most people commenting on this phase of his work identified it with the minimalist music of such composers as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. So it should be, on one level. But Taggart hasn’t simply picked up musical ideas without modifying them or working through them from outside. In his work before this, he had been building up patterns of repetition and playing with memory on a smaller scale. Some examples were close to counterparts in Glass and Reich; others weren’t. To me, this is one of the most important characteristics of Taggart’s prosody at this time. The synergy of methods was reaching its maximum. Readers and listeners could clearly identify a type of music in the poems. The kind of “musicality” of Taggart and poets working from a similar background was still there, and interacting with minimalism, but those who had not developed the sense of musicality could still hear something.

A shift in scale or proportion is essential at this stage of development. Moving to the repetition of long phrases with small variations in them, Taggart could build considerably on — and achieve more with — what he had been doing for several years. The use of long lines, instead of individual words, as basic units of composition stimulates as well as makes use of memory. The patterns created by multiple long lines give Taggart opportunities for simultaneous inventions. The long, repetitive phrases are largely what make the sense of musicality more apparent than the musicality in other poets, from Zukofsky to Enslin to Taggart himself before this phase. Their length can also make them easier to remember, or initially seem more memorable, than the shorter lines.

“Inside Out”[13] has received less attention than “Slow Song for Mark Rothko” and “Peace on Earth” — perhaps because it is simpler. This makes it a good poem on which to comment. The first stanza of the first section of the poem appears below:

You have to hear the sound before you play the sound.

 You have to hear you have to you have to hear to

 hear you have to give you have to give ear you

 who have you who have ears you who have ears to

 hear you have to give ear to hear the traveler you

 have to you have to you have to give ear you who have

 ears to hear the traveler who is a bird to

 hear the traveler who is a bird who so sings.

 

Except for the repetition of the word “sound,” the first line may seem plain and formally unremarkable. Still, that repetition of a word, placed in positions that suggest balance and define symmetrical phrases, has a slightly musical, perhaps even haunting, quality. This line will initiate a variation of the cantus firmus technique Taggart used in a number of ways throughout his oeuvre. In this method, the composer reuses parts of a preexisting melody in a new work. In this instance, the words in the first line get used in different orders throughout the stanza.

The pileup of “you have to” phrases which follows in the succeeding lines breaks away from the balanced clarity and simplicity of the first line. If these were simply repeated phrases, they might not be very interesting, though their effect might be easier to identify as insistent or angry or imperative or desperate or obsessive or, well, fill in the blank as you will. But the “repetitions” include variations — and variations of different magnitude. Following the first “You have to hear” the reader moves to a simple “you have to,” with “hear” all the more insistent by its absence in the immediate text — and by its presence in memory. The “to” at the end of the line breaks up a variation in addition to adding one. This time, it seems to call the sense of the phrase and succession of phrases into question: at this point, it is possible to get the sense of something like “you have to hear [in order to __]” — this could even move a notion such as “you have to hear in order to hear” beyond tautology. It can suggest, after all, that you have to “hear” in a mechanical sense numerous times in order to “hear” in such a way as to understand. This is true even in the most rudimentary sense: a child has to hear words repeated before understanding language and words. As the poem progresses, the words “give” and “ear” enter the patterns of repetition, first separately, then joining forces, and doing so as the word “who” enters, and in a few steps, joins the other newly added words. By this time, the sense of the repeated phrases has continued to change, and does so again when the word “have” returns with, once more, a change in sense. In addition to shadow memory brought about by near-repetition, there are hints at shadows of words and phrases that may be suggested, but aren’t actually present. This is the case with the words inside the brackets in “you have to hear [in order to ___].”

This pattern of slight changes with each repetition continues through the stanza, through the page built from it, and through the whole poem. “Traveler” may produce a bit of surprise for the reader or hearer, as well as the feeling of appropriateness or understanding, by the revelation that the traveler is a bird, and, finally, a bird that sings. The singing bird can call up a large number of associations, and with them, tones, emotions, memories, symbols, and so forth.

Throughout the poem, the patterns of repetition can work in several ways. The repetition can produce an almost hypnotic absorption, a rapt fascination such as one might feel while completely engaged in a form of music which the listener finds most entrancing. Then again, the slight variations can pull the reader or listener in another direction: expecting and waiting for each change throws particular emphasis on each word, creating suspense, caution, anticipation, and all the colorations associated with such conditions, from irritation to edginess to puzzlement to eagerness to amusement to a sense of thoroughness in working out possibilities. Curiously, the two general responses, absorption with the flow of repetition and watching for change, could be considered almost as opposites — but that’s one of the ways that prosody such as this becomes so dense. Concentrating on the repetitions as repetitions produces a condition of smoothness and serenity, with a sense of time passing easily and perhaps pleasantly as the phrases maintain their unity and the poem seems more a procession of phrases than words. Concentrating on the variations produces a sense of anticipation and curiosity, in which the reader or hearer anticipates variations, individual words rather than phrases become the center of focus and significance, and the irregular stresses on the variants creates a slow and emphatic rhythm rather than a flowing melody. A good deal of the response depends on the reader or hearer’s state of mind, and assumptions or anticipation for this particular reading of the poem. This can change from one reading to another, or even within a single reading. What has been most remarkable to me is that these two types of response can alternate, overlap, and even at times seem close to occurring at the same time.

For me, one of the ways that the cumulative repetitions worked in regard to each other, and cumulatively through the poem, and perhaps in interrelating or balancing the hypnotic effect and the effect of having to be highly attentive to the details of small variations, depends on acoustic memory or shadow memory. As already noted, Taggart and I had been interested in various forms of polyphonic music. I tried some multi-voice performance scores, but generally wasn’t happy with them. Works such as A Book of Questions and Goddesses gave me the opportunity to use shadow memory to suggest polyphonic music. I don’t believe that such devices as counterpoint can be produced by a single vocal line, and have objected to poets using terms such as “counterpoint” either as a metaphor or without understanding the musical term. Shadow memory, however, whether the types I used or the types Taggart used, can suggest polyphony, particularly through forms of memory which include not only memory of previous lines or phrases within the poem, but also the memory of music heard previously, particularly music heard repeatedly over time.

Response to variations adds another layer of depth to Taggart’s acoustic repertoire. In the poems of this period, Taggart occasionally added layers of sound patterning as direct quotes from fully formed musical compositions. Such quotes included a passage from a Tarahumara ritual song, which would be unintelligible to nearly any audience who might hear Taggart read it, but which added greater complexity and resonance to two poems. Taggart could just as easily incorporate a familiar phrase from an R & B song or a word or phrase from a language his audience might consider less esoteric than Tarahumara even though the words could be just as unintelligible. Traditional devices such as alliteration and assonance reinforced the rhythms of the repetitions or slight variations; and even syncopated line breaks could work with comparatively long lines. Contrasts between the lengths of repeated phrases, or nearly repeated phrases, could also add to the textures of poems in this period.

It seemed that at this time Taggart was achieving a prosody as dense and as complex as it could get without moving into multi-voiced performance or song or working with instrumental accompaniment.

And it seems likely that Taggart himself felt he had done as much as he wanted with this kind of density. To borrow, albeit imprecisely, Lettriste terminology, he had reached maximum amplification, was ready to move on to a period of chiseling.

*

I arranged a reading in Milwaukee for Taggart in the early 1980s. One of the poems he read was Dehiscence. In this poem he seemed to be making major modifications in the methods and purposes of what his friends had started calling his “minimalist” poems, though I wasn’t sure where he was going with the new poem. I’m not certain if he had sent me drafts of Dehiscence before the reading. But I’m confident that hearing him read the poem was a major factor, if not the major factor, in convincing me to publish it as a book.[14]

This poem used many of the techniques of the previous set. But some were growing more dense while others were literally making an exit. In this book, words and phrases don’t always shift as they repeat: as the book progresses, many disappear from successive pages and cease to be heard as the poem moves forward. There are fourteen lines on the first page; the last page has just three lines: the first consisting of one word, the second line containing two large empty spaces, and the third line including empty space before the period at its end. Here’s the complete text of the last page:

                                                     this
night song                        in heaven and parodise      oo-oooo-ooo-oo
         letting go one’s hands to clap hands     .

The poem quotes the Bo Diddley classic “Who do you love?” and the Tarahumara song from “Peace on Earth.” The poem even includes scatting, whether quoted or written as a type of cadenza. The sound patterns start at least as densely as those in any of the minimalist poems: but now the pattern of diminishing sounds creates the acoustic equivalent of negative space. Negative space could function in several ways: it could create rhythmic patterns somewhat similar to those created by syncopated line breaks; the plotting of pauses or silences could form an almost contrary rhythm; and the negative space could make room for a field where acoustic memory could function in greater freedom than it had in the previous works. In addition to the relatively simple overall pattern of decreasing “material,” the words that dropped out could virtually ask the reader or listener to anticipate those which would follow them into absence as well as to help the reader remember them when they were gone. Since the poem isn’t simply a large mechanical pattern that drops equal parts at regular intervals, but one that at times adds new material, and fully explores the interplay of textures as diverse as the Bo Diddley and Tarahumara songs, the negative space can play an active, almost aggressive, role. I was delighted with the poem when I first heard it, and that had not diminished when I finished producing it as a book in 1983.

Between publishing the two volumes, I also published an audio tape of Taggart reading his first five books as part of my New Fire series. This was apparently the only audio recording of Taggart reading produced for general distribution.

As far as I can determine, Rochelle Ratner and I were the first to write commentary on the poetry exemplified by “Slow Song for Mark Rothko.” Ratner and I worked on our comments together, reading drafts to each other over the telephone in the days before email. Our essays appeared in the 1979 John Taggart issue of Gil Ott’s Paper Air magazine along with the first publication of “Peace on Earth,” and are now online.[15] In this instance, we stumbled into doing something like “triangulation” without planning to. It’s also interesting to note that even though we worked in very different modes in our own poetry, we could discuss our work, not in spite of our differences, but in part because of them. For Ratner and for me, a development in prosody was news — an addition to the “news that stays news.” What poets take as news can be important in itself. However, apart from this kind of news, other things were changing, and by the mid-1980s, I began a period during which I wrote little and published few books.

My last Taggart publication came quite a bit later: after the mid-1990s, I published “Slow Song” and “Inside Out” on the web.[16] In 1994, I began working with what now seems crude HTML coding to build a website that would allow me to try more elaborate forms of triangulation and other means of presentation and interrelation. I could have done a survey or homepage devoted to Taggart, but he was not interested in the web at the time. I was, however, glad to have gotten permission to use these two poems, and put them online along with the essays Ratner and I had done. These entries produced another simple form of triangulation. This was all the Taggart you could find on the web for many years. I like to think that this introduced a fair number of readers to his work who would have missed it otherwise, and who often enough sought out more after the introduction.

After Dehiscence, Taggart moved on to other projects, such as Remaining in Light: Ant Meditations on a Painting by Edward Hopper. And he went on to other poems, generally using variations of the verse forms of the “middle period,” including Dehiscence as the transition to the later work.

*

What I’ve seen in the work that followed is a continued interest in something resembling what the Lettristes called chiseling — including exploration of varieties of acoustic memory, and several beautiful uses of shadow memory.

There Are Birds[17] includes its share of examples. The long poem “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” includes interesting and profound instances, albeit less insistent, less prominent, and perhaps less commanding — or less a model of invention.

On the third page of the poem, we find these lines:

above
two windows one window on the left window of her room
what she could see on a clear day she could see north mountain

The “window[s]” in the second line not only set up repetitions and linguistic ambiguities, aided by lack of punctuation, which a reader of Taggart should find familiar enough, but, on a basic and simple level, the “windows” repeat the phrase “two windows” at the beginning of a three-line block just before this one.

Perhaps the most interesting use of shadow memory here takes shape in “north mountain.” In reading this, a reader will probably “hear” and remember a passage from the previous page. The reader may remember the distinctly different color of “blue mountain,” and may also assume a precise repetition of “north mountain.” Actually, “north mountain” is not precisely repeated, and the combination of different types of close repetition is one which will probably seem faint and will turn out to be illusory for readers who check back to the lines on the other side of the leaf. Here is the previous passage:

grew up around here in this valley in the
space between north and south mountain two blue mountains
long waveforms/ridgelines of two blue mountains

Readers may feel the sense of repetition and those who go back to the seemingly repeated passage will probably have different responses, however mild the responses may be in comparison to the complexities of “Peace on Earth” or Dehiscence. In this instance, shadow memory works through an illusion and dislocation. These passages occur within a narrative framework that makes the sense of repetition more moderate for those who hear precise repetition, and makes it more pronounced for those who note the non-repetition. However a reader hears a shadow memory, the time between the elements is longer than the patterns in “Peace on Earth.”

Near the end of There Are Birds, Taggart makes an interesting use of repetition which may be closer to the syncopation of line breaks than the longer arcs of shadow memory. The book ends with two “Cadenzas,” numbered “Cadenza 2” and “Cadenza 3,” in the type face used for the titles in the book. Cadenza 2 consists of a free cascade of stanza-like sets of lines, each made up of highly repetitive clusters. The first, second, and fourth begin with the same line:

there are birds there is birdsong

The only difference between them is that the first begins with a capital T. The repeated lines are made up of two parts which closely resemble each other, and resemble the middle-period works where Taggart used the potential for sounding like repetition or emphasizing variation in similar blocks of sound. The role of the interrelation of number works on other levels, such as: “there are birds” (plural), “there is birdsong” (singular, even if the birds aren’t following the same melodic pattern). Other lines in the cadenza move freely, though containing repetitions internally and at nearly as much distance as a small poem like this allows. The second and ninth lines (both following “there are birds there is birdsong” iterations) begin with the words “unmourning and mournful” but conclude with a different phrase.

Cadenza 3 consists of the line

There are birds

repeated three times, with the only difference, again, being the capitalization of the first letter in the first line. The space between the second and third iteration of the line is about three times that between the first and second. This pattern has been used frequently and by a fair number of poets. But the contrast between the dynamic patterns of just a few words in 2 and the simplicity of 3 is delightful, and does a good job of summarizing and condensing the patterns of repetition and the use of acoustic and shadow memory through an extensive period of exploration.

It’s interesting to note that the form, nature, and use of a “cadenza” have changed considerably through its long history. And changed in the small scale of this article since I noted a cadenza-like pattern in an earlier poem by Taggart as a means of trying something like shadow memory in an essay. How should we understand it in There Are Birds? The term can mean a flourish near the end of a phrase in a solo; or a solo passage, either improvised or specifically notated, played in key positions in a concerto. These basics include many variations. Generally, a cadenza doesn’t conclude a longer work, though it comes, often enough, immediately before a final coda. In There Are Birds, similar and/or identical phrases cross between cadenzas 2 and 3, perhaps suggesting something like syncopation in line breaks, as well as abbreviated versions of near-repetition in stanzas and pages. Each cadenza could be moved to separated positions in earlier parts of the book, as in a concerto. However a reader understands these poems, they suggest multiple possibilities. These may include shadow memory, but even if they don’t, they echo other multi-layer methods derived from musical sources in Taggart’s poetry.

We live in a literary environment where possibilities of poetic form seem to expand at an ever increasing rate, and the number of people writing under the search tag “poetry” grows at a similar scale, but most of the potentials for prosody seem to go unused. It is reassuring, at least to me, to see an unassuming poet whom I published in what seems a different world, continue to evolve new patterns out of ideas such as cadenzas, and quietly ask his readers to read his poems aloud, however quaint that may seem. He apparently understands how much he’s asking; and certainly realizes the kinds of rewards that such reading offers to people working in modes unrelated to his. Is it paradoxical that his request could mean a great deal to people trying to make poetry from wordless computer codes, where simple tweets get rewritten by machines over and over in transit, possibly being bounced off satellites moving in an environment where sound waves can’t exist without a medium to carry them; and that his request could mean just as much to those who may create an optimistic future out of the wreckage of cities like Detroit, in the shadows and memories of musical ideas which evolved and flourished in multi-layered conjunction with a previous human-industrial ecosystem?

 


 

1. For extensive reflections on the beginning of the organization, see Water Street Arts Center, Part 1. For brief notices of stages of development, see this Milwaukee Journal article and this excerpt from a local history.

2. John Taggart, John Taggart Reading His First Five Books (Milwaukee: Membrane Press/New Fire Audio Books, 1979).

3. A Symposium on Theodore Enslin, guest edited by John Taggart, from Karl Young’s Margins Symposium Series; Truck (1982).

4. Silliman’s Blog, January 7, 2005.

5. Karl Young, Review of Taggart’s Pyramid Canon (Burning Deck Press) Margins, no. 15 (1974).

6. John Taggart, The Pyramid Is a Pure Crystal (New Rochelle: Elizabeth Press, 1974).

7. “Three Poems by HD” and “What Does It Mean to Say a Poem Is an Object?,” bibliography by John Taggart, Stations, nos. 3 and 4; Milwaukee, 1975.

8. For more on Taggart’s working methods, as he described them to me in our correspondence, see my essay on producing John Taggart’s books in this section of Some Volumes of Poetry,  and the quotes in Robert Duncan’s introduction to the book.

9. John Taggart, Dodeka (Milwaukee: Membrane Press, 1979).

10. Karl Young, A Book of Questions and Goddesses (from Middle American Dialogues) (Ann Arbor, Salt House Mining, 1978).

11. Click here for a reproduction of the second unit.

12. I had also begun work on poems which I latter called Fractals, and which eventually included book-length pieces such as Orange Gold. These could employ as many as a dozen different lines of development presented on the same page or set of pages. They worked with acoustic memory and shadow memory, but they were meant to be read in a manner which virtually forced a different reading each time a piece was vocalized or even read in silence. The constant change in these works may have been a dimension of what could legitimately be considered musical, but still not the kind of musicality Taggart and other poets, and even I myself in other works, had in mind. This is a crucial distinction to make in understanding prosody and in trying to make the most of the freedom the abandonment of traditional patterns made available. See the bio page linked from this essay for more on Fractals, including online publication of some of them.

13. “Inside Out,” along with “Slow Song for Mark Rothko,” are available online at Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry.

14. John Taggart, Dehiscence (Milwaukee: Membrane Press, 1983).

15. Rochelle Ratner and Karl Young, “Two Approaches to John Taggart’s ‘Slow Song for Mark Rothko’ and ‘Inside Out,’” John Taggart issue of Paper Air 2, no. 1 (1979).

16. John Taggart, “Slow Song for Mark Rothko” and “Inside Out,” Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry.

17. John Taggart, There Are Birds (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2008).