That Taggart

‘Grey Scale/Zukofsky’

That Taggart pursues meditative stamina in words approximating a drone for the verbal field is well known. That he has made sacramental use of the performed word is also acknowledged. There Are Birds does something else, however, even as it again realizes Taggart’s Objectivist scruple.

Gradual variation is characteristic of beauty in the art of the suspended meditative state by which we know Taggart’s poetics, but if beauty be indicated through gradually varied loveliness, There Are Birds is manifestly unlovely in this sense. Exaggerating the difference between line and word, in orchestrated rough and leggy gait, poems in There Are Birds also elect to mess with Taggart’s preferred commonplace type and symbol for a lexical particularity not readily assimilated into smoothness, let alone beauty. Instead, prosodic oddness and lexical particularity here work against the commonplace and undermine the generic type that Taggart does not typically allow, if measured against the writing we have come to expect from him. Rather, this book emphasizes diversity of vocabulary and extremes in line length, in an assemblage eccentric and singular in its linguistic deposit. As for the scoring, most marked is the absence of supersaturation of phrase shifts in incremental steps to establish field dynamics within a drone. In a swerve from the implications of repetition and ready homogeneity, heterogeneity is played out, in linguistic difference not reconciled in equilibrium let alone consistency: and this is striking, given that Taggart usually takes pains to articulate a plane of repetition highly consistent within its terms. For here accidental associations put the spare short sections off-kilter: in the realm of notes, remarks, lines written a few miles above, not Tintern Abbey, but his equivalent to favorite and familiar spots of time.

There Are Birds pays homage to ancestors. Objectivist poets are named directly and acknowledged. As the poem “Grey Scale/Zukofsky” demonstrates, the ancestors are named directly, and within the poem as well, directly acknowledged. Meanwhile the poetic object composed by Taggart jumps around, from attention paid to photographs to the mentions wherein tutelary spirits of the moderns are invoked. Ultimately, the putative object, the gray scale as optical series, surrenders to the grey scale wherein verbal indications embed descriptors and contend with each other in the descriptive/contextual debates concerning language in use. So it is of interest to focus on “Grey Scale/Zukofsky” and the contrastive difference between the visual gray scale and the linguistic grey scale presented in this poem. 

The gray scale is a term for the conventional photographer’s card, the tonal standard by which reproductive analogue images may be matched for accuracy in reproduction. Typically, a few uniformly calibrated increments can be said to objectify the continuum of tonal shift from white to black, and so establish a gauge for seeing and printing an image in its particularity. So the gray scale is a visual BASIC, and performs its reductive syntax with alacrity, helpful in controlling for the “semantic” tonal distortion under certain conditions of transmitting visual messages. Grey scale is the same in an alternative English spelling. This, Taggart tells me, is the spelling he prefers, owing to its subjective coloration for him, not to any cultural encryption. But as the choice of the American Taggart, the lexical “grey scale” might well induce a shift to a context of literary rather than visual considerations, or even as a prompt to the linguistic status of color in language philosophy on the other side of the pond.

As against the uniform gamut of visual gray, the grey scale of “Grey Scale/Zukofsky” arrays itself in sentences, so that each of the initial three sections of this spare poem announces a differing order of gray: “whiteness”; “silver maple”; “middle grey.” Incommensurate here are the ideas to which the words refer: “whiteness,” as from an order of being, “silver maple” as referring to a tree known through several common names and a scientific one, and “middle grey,” a general condition of the average. None of these are facts. Although by no means systematically driven, the poem is highly deliberate in indicating that difference is of a conceptual heft for which strata cannot be reconciled or comprehended.

The fourth section begins with “Three tones + other tones,” a pun on sound and sight attuned to the visible to the scale of snow: “glaring” in full light, “in full shade,” and “no snow.” These together form a spectrum of sorts, through which to refer to a rough gamut of light to dark (with the third term, however, incommensurate, and pertaining to another scale: full to empty). A resourceful poet, Taggart finds a way of inducing a spectrum without naming “snow in full shade” by calling it “gray,” which would have language prompt the picture’s academic convention prior to the Impressionist way of seeing the world firsthand. Even so, we are reading about snow as a literary experience: knowledge by description occurs in the very act of describing weather in some language. (The verbal condition we ascribe to experience informs this poem: teasing out knowledge as conventional through language that makes us describe snow gray in shade when it is not, as later Wittgenstein, in his lecture notes compiled in Remarks on Colour, indicates.) Other tones are added to these three tones, through sentences that mention a cat, a dolphin’s shadow, and Bach, where visual and aural experiences could be said to compound the logical spectrum with contingent scales of all sorts.

In the following section, the mention of Pound specifies an image of him as fixed through the photograph taken by Richard Avedon in 1958 — this a fact, but a fact subsumed now as souvenir, by way of a postcard serving as a bookmark. Souvenir in its calibrations here comprises “three tones + other tones + two tones.” Approaches vary from section to section, to interpolate factual, cognitive, and affective present recollections in the spectrum. All eleven short spare sections issue in linguistic deposits from particular to general, collected from differing linguistic and literary strata. Overall, the range Taggart generates is deliberate yet also unsystematic, not fixed, fluidly a sequence improvised for this purpose: and it opens onto the possibilities wherein any number of other grays would satisfy the concept. Photographs of Pound, a postcard of Williams, and then of Zukofsky, are mentioned, scanned or scrutinized — this last dwelt on.

Louis Zukofsky by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, 1968.

Identifying Zukofsky might well range over the following descriptive possibilities: Objectivist poet, author of A, guy in Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s photograph. Not all so singular as to fix an identity, nonetheless these descriptions stand in for Zukofsky. Section 8 introduces the poet:

And so I come

 to the

 to the one/only photograph on my wall


 and I am not one of those travelers a willful one or merely a stubborn one

 still stubborn still





 home to Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s 1968 photograph of Zukofsky


 on my wall.


Shades — as in of the deceased. Represented through their linguistic signatures are shades of Stein, as well as the shadow of Creeley’s Oppen, wherein lines by Taggart recall Creeley’s serial syntax ceding to Steinian predicates in parallel. Not to mention echoes of Zukofsky’s Shakespeare: “Come shadow come.” And while we’re at it, shades of Charles Ives whose music often ended with the ringing silence in the aftermath of a din. (Or think of Albert Ayler’s hymnal purge.) As in most of his poetry, Taggart adheres to common vocabulary neutral enough to pass for plain speech in commonplaces that shun the “gaudy” (says Wordsworth) poetical for the dull, all the better to demonstrate what can “be brought to light” in the clustering and sequencing of tones. How illumination comes and goes through neutral diction is central to Taggart’s poetics.

Referring to a specific image of Zukofsky presents itself as a fact, with Taggart’s own knowledge of those generative circumstances unavailable. The reader may have knowledge concerning the empirical evidence, through familiarity with Zukofsky’s poetry, but not with the photography of Meatyard, or the other way around — or of neither. Does it matter? Certain post-analytical philosophies would argue that the point of the way language works is not to prompt a comparison between empiricism, logic, and grammar and to find grammar a deficient empiricism or inadequate logic but to take sentences as their own object. So from this point of view, the verifiable status of information and reference in the poem is irrelevant, except insofar as it represents an informational sentence as such. Even so, to the Objectivist Taggart, precision in reference does matter; approximating the reference is not an option for the writer of this sentence, for beyond the contrastive linguistic status of specific to general statements whereby differing linguistic orders are thrown into relief, indeterminacy of language in its range of contents also requires a vigilant attention to differing sorts of things. So, with the contextual framing allowed us through Taggart’s affiliation with Objectivism, it may be important to note that the grey scale of sense for the Objectivist must include a semantic concreteness that could be investigated and checked, even though the nature of language is such that it does not promise to picture anything named.

In the next section of “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” a descriptive physiognomy of the poet does appear, but split from previous section’s mention of the name, for here appears no proper name, at any rate. The verbal description of a face that constitutes this passage is characteristic, plausible, and yet no resemblance that could not also derive from a number of other images of distributed darks and lights. So that date of 1968 mentioned in the previous section serves to limit that which floats an indeterminate range of physiognomic Zukofsky.

But as a photographic medium mediates Zukofsky’s identity and further complicates the discussion, we wonder how knowledge of Meatyard’s practice affects the reading of visual gray scale deployed as verbal grey scale. In his experimental photographic practice, Meatyard, an optician by trade, let the technique deviate from the optical clear and distinct norm, by exaggerating light/dark extremes or obscuring figure/ground relations, and otherwise interposing indistinctness between the human subject and the camera, both to give privilege to the medium and to make composition the priority. To this end, the figure was a prop, an element with compositional potential, a subordinate, not a dominant, subject. Meanwhile, along with these stylistic devices were exploited the blur of moving subjects, and, along with montage, Meatyard’s style derived formalist invention from surrealistic yet also abstract-expressionist tendencies toward chance or indeterminate outcomes. And so his images of Louis and Celia Zukofsky, to be incorporated in a special issue of Maps, the journal edited by Taggart, range over obscure to clear-and-distinct optical knowledge; in some, rendered indistinctly even as Meatyard has increased the contrast, the background is glaringly light and obscurely dark, while the human profile is dark and dim. Black and white photography is evidently being used to undermine portraiture in the conventional sense. The particular image referred to by Taggart, however, issues from the same batch of photographs but is one unpublished and retained for his own home. This image from Taggart’s private collection happens to be in extremely sharp focus. So knowing only that Meatyard’s photography induces tones to be measured against a gray scale as all black-and-white photography does provides mere given knowledge, but knowing the contextual field of inquiry through which a given scale becomes a singular tonal compositional style helps to fix style and cultural rhetoric, especially considering that the nature of his formalist experimentation (downplayed in Taggart’s verbal rendering) ups the ante on the image through the garbling of likeness. Furthermore, to say now that Meatyard’s Zukofsky undermines likeness in producing indistinctness is only one way of putting it; another way would be that all exposures are clear and distinct points allowed for by the apparatus of the camera, and manipulating the exposure and focal length is as decisive at one position as at another.

For the test of visual gray, the lexical test of grey creates a poetic object of considerable interest. For the sake of comparison, consider other poets’ use of the poetic object written to display the category of one color. As noted by Keats, in his “Written in Answer to a Sonnet Ending Thus:” in which the concept of blue or blueness not exhaustively calibrated but suggestively evoked in singular and singularly elusive hues, blue becomes a variegated name. No wonder that Oscar Wilde loved this poem and lectured on it when visiting American positivist soil, treating the naturalists to an antidote of protosymbolist spectral chromaticism. Closer to our contemporary moment, for some of us the gray-scale card becomes a prompt for thinking about linguistic versus empirical or logical orders. If one were to consider that tone, scale, and modes locate subjective mentality; and were one to find these transposed to the condition of the individual in society, as does Norma Cole, one would find the essay hospitable for accommodating the particular individuality of others. Ruminating on the poetry of Robin Blaser, Cole writes that “In ‘The Medium’ the relationship between its musicality and the tempering of others’ scales, as well as the narrative of the timing, is perceptible here in or as ‘a darkness,’ a rhythm reflecting its ‘reluctance.’” Then not just modulating the category as concept but articulating singularly inflected subject positions other than oneself becomes a test of the grey scale as a standard given term of coexistence.

But to the point. Indeterminacy for a man who went by the designation L. W. did consider the logical positivist view that language is not logic, and extended this to mean that grammar is not an inadequate state of affairs with which we make do until we grasp the reality of some underlying concept. Rather as it had been established in the pragmatic scheme of things, grammar accommodates a congeries of differing descriptions and interpretations with a syntactic ingenuity that enlists different orders for the words in use. So, the title of Taggart’s poem, as being set apart, establishes the “key” in which a (as well as key to which) grey as a category is not neutral: but through specificity, through clustered indications that establish semantic relations, and through the contextual cultural knowledge that any word — let alone Taggart’s “Zukofsky” — presupposes, the greys to be found in linguistic use in the poem strongly indicate the subjectivity, not objectivity, of practiced linguistic terms and their pragmatic zones. Drawing upon the experience of his own knowledge and immediate habitat, John Taggart has composed “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” a poetic object that constructs not a holism but an all of another sort: an assemblage of greys construed as tones from the strata of possible descriptions — that much richer for being measured against a sequence of fixed positions.

On John Taggart's 'There Are Birds'

In Pastorelles, John Taggart built an imaginary woodland garden for his poetry from features of the actual landscape around his house outside of Newburg, Pennsylvania.[1] He made the imaginary landscape into a field of activity and information where he speculated about music, art, and poetry as song. The whole volume makes up a long serial poem of diverse meditations on the processes of poetry. The poems in There Are Birds expand the poetic territories surveyed in Pastorelles. The woodland garden, intertextual and external references from the previous volumes, mainly Peace on Earth and Loop, and ideas of the serial poem expand into a book-length serial structure composed of poems which are themselves serial poems. There Are Birds is an extended, carefully designed volume which supports an endless meditation on the garden, “song,” “visualization of white of whiteness,” figures and avatars of the poet, and the muse of the poem.[2] The series of poems enacts a poetics of vision and composition that Taggart has been unfolding since the poems of Loop — with Peace on Earth as guide — through the poems of Pastorelles.

In a review of Stravinsky’s The Poetics of Music, Robert Duncan wrote:

Poetics is the contemplation of the meaning of form: it is what is common to painting, music, sculpture and poetry. Poiein, Stravinsky reminds us, means to make.[3]

The poems of There Are Birds contain references to all kinds of subjects — other poems, events of history, problems of aesthetics and philosophy, music of various kinds, literature, works of art — but the references do not constitute a poetics. The often-cited phrase “the subject matter of poetry” does not define a poetics, but does give indications of a reference system for a poem. An impulse to articulation comes before the references, so the ways the references inform and so enforce the form of the poem contribute to a poetics. As Charles Olson wrote in Call Me Ishmael, “what lies under,” what is underneath the language structure of the poem that moves it toward statement and literary form, makes a poetics. A poetics also contains the rudiments of structures like metrics, cadences, stanzas, rhyme patterns, line lengths, capitalization, and units of composition. In There Are Birds Taggart draws out the enactment of form through a variety of information and points of structure. He is working out a poetics built on serial form, so the information under the poems, or in the ambience of the poems, needs to be brought forward to discuss the processes of visionary poetics the poems enact.

Views inside the Rothko Chapel.

Taggart has compounded and refined his concept of serial form since Peace on Earth and the poems in Loop, mainly “The Rothko Chapel Poem” and “Not Quite Parallel Lines.” “The Rothko Chapel Poem” combines meditation on Mark Rothko’s paintings with frequent repetitions of phrases and colors of the paintings as the poems move to comprehend the spiritual presences in the paintings. “Not Quite Parallel Lines” combines repetition as an inherent structural principle with meditations on conceits of parallelism. Complex intertextual and external references made it possible to sustain a series of meditations without the luxury of a sustaining narrative or a linear plot built on cause and effect relationships. In Remaining in Light: Ant Meditations on a Painting by Edward Hopper Taggart developed the use of “Supplements,” layers of reference used to analyze a single painting by Hopper, which he found in Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, to expand the possible readings of the painting.[4] Taggart reads Edward Hopper’s painting “A Woman in the Sun” against four sets of “Supplements,” surrounding texts by Jacques Derrida, Meister Eckhart, Edmond Jabès, Simone Weil, and others; when each set has been discussed against the painting, the possible meanings of the painting accumulate and intensify. He adds:

This is an argument for the accuracy or applicability of the moebius strip as a model for reading and criticism. The strip is made up of a presumed primary text to which are added, interwoven, braided other texts which are called supplements.[5]

Changing the context of reading changes the possibilities for reading. The reading “constantly increases in complexity.”[6] Taggart adds, “The act of reading is akin to the ceaseless motion of an ant on a moebius strip.”[7] But in Pastorelles Taggart changes the terms of his field of poetry from information to geography (without forgetting the information) and proposes a freedom of imaginative activity. As he moved through the poems of Pastorelles and then There Are Birds, he modified the “presumed primary text” into a multiplicity of themes and images which compose the environment or the ambience of the poem. While the concept of the serial poem has been expanded and made more inclusive, some parts of its form have remained unchanged. An individual poem can be considered a fragment, grammatical or conceptual. The individual poems are parts of the whole poem, but individually or collectively they are not necessarily obligated to the unity of a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is no continuous plot or sustained narrative in which the parts are held together in causal relationships. The beginning of the series does not preordain its conclusion, so it begins as an open system without a prescribed termination. The serial poem becomes a series open to endless variation, or rehearsals of thought and perception. The poems enact in the contemplation of the emergence of form in language the unending processes of thinking and seeing, precluding, therefore, a final, teleological account.


“Unveiling/Marianne Moore” is the long and dominating poem of There Are Birds. Two poems precede it — “Refrains for Robert Quine” and “Grey Scale/Zukofsky” — which contain some of the points of meditation that will appear throughout the volume. First among these: “There are birds there is birdsong” (1). There are formulations from previous volumes — the “extraction of a new song from what is in memory”[8] and “the object is a song.”[9] For Taggart, “song” is the clear articulation of the presence of a spiritual force which usually appears in a natural setting. “Songs mean / freshness / that meaning so sweetly and freely as a gardener weaves flowers in her hair” (Birds, 2). He also refers to songs by many singers and composers, all of whom exemplify his sense of the power of words to contain a spiritual presence. “Refrains” begins with a reference to an earlier poem, “Head in hands in tears,”[10] which is expanded into:

And goes is gone

 cause for mourning head

 in hands in tears gonna be a long wait for the resurrection

 of the dead. (Birds, 1)


Crying with head in hands will not bring resurrection of the dead, and in contrast to that proposal the birdsongs, and the garden, “jardin de plaisir” (1), offer alternatives of freshness, beauty, and meditation. There is a submerged reference here. In section 43 of the poem “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” Taggart quotes from William Carlos Williams’s essay “Marianne Moore,” first published in 1932: “white ‘of a clarity beyond / the facts’” (43). The essay praises Moore for integrity of her process of seeing and writing, especially “where pure craftsmanship joins hard surfaces skillfully,”[11] but it also mentions her garden and her concept of “white”; the essay on Moore’s poetics introduces her as a central feature of the ambience of the whole book of poems. In that same essay Williams writes: “It is the mystical, indestructible garden of pleasure, perhaps greatly pressed for space today, but there and intact, nevertheless[12]. In Pastorelles, Taggart built his personal garden made out of the walls of a mill along an old millrace near his house, but in There Are Birds the actual garden is transformed into a “jardin de plaisir” complete with “a gardener la belle jardinière” (1), who is the volume’s first appearance of a female or muse figure, and who becomes an object of speculation and exploration. Right at the start, Taggart expands his personal garden into an idea of a garden of pleasure, and a female gardener with a link to Marianne Moore, and proposes it as the counter to

                                     a time of hunger and danger of young men and older men
in tears our time a time
of terror and counterterror (2)

The poem’s fourth section tries to move beyond bad times with the idea that hurt is a very destructive part of being human:

And boo-hoo-hoo

 like dolls

 hurt breaks you up like dolls get broken the visible human

 the visibly spastic plastic. (3)


Lines from Wallace Stevens’s “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” come through here:

If sex were all, then every trembling hand
Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.[13]

The equivocation of hurt and sex draws Stevens into the ambience of the poem. His voice will intrude in later poems. In stopping the poem, Taggart returns to an earlier poem from Pastorelles:

this is an action movie in a woods a man and a woman

 in a woods walking and enchanting sonata or song

 in a woods. (90)

 This garden is well-designed and cared for, “dream designed”:

 where men and women are in contemplation in conversation in

 one another’s eyes

 there is a gardener holding her bouquets and holding her skirts like the light like

 so sweetly woven song like love never for sale. (Birds, 3)


This poem of four refrains, or four meditations on Robert Quine,[14] stops its serial movement with an assertion of the place of the garden as an imaginary place, a territory of poetic thinking where love flourishes watched over by a female gardener. In its progress, the poem has introduced the compelling themes of the book — song, the muse, the garden — and indicated that an ambience exists around the poem that appears from time to time in acknowledged or unacknowledged references.

The second poem of There Are Birds, “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” an eleven-section rumination on William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Louis Zukofsky, photography, and other matters, adds crucial elements in the spreading out of the elaborate form of the volume. The first section contains the lines “visualization of white of whiteness / which is impossible” (4). This is the first reference to “white” in the volume.[15] Williams’s essay on Moore was an inherent part of the first poem’s ambience, and although the essay is quoted in sections 43 and 46 of “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” the introduction of “white” leads to a series of references to white and clarity and an associative link with Moore. Here the poem asserts that it is impossible to create a material image of white, the perception of spiritual presence, but it is nonetheless the obligation of this poem and the ones to follow to try to find a visual image: the effort toward clarity and articulation permeates all the themes of the collection. Williams’s essay is referred to but not cited here, but Williams reappears in section 7. The lines “Williams / said the only human value = intense” (8) are quoted from Williams’s poem “The Descent of Winter”: “The only human value of anything, writing included, is intense vision of the facts, add to that by saying the truth and action upon them, — clear into the machine of absurdity to a core that is covered.”[16]

Louis Zukofsky by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, 1968.

The third section quotes from Pound’s “Canto LXXIV,” and so brings wind and rain into the process of clearing the ground for Taggart’s own woodland garden, “bow saw to cut down weedy box elders” (5). Section 4 insists on “Three tones + two tones” (6): these three tones — “Melopoeia, Phanopoeia, and Logopoeia” — are part of the foundation of Pound’s poetics, and Taggart brings the ideas in here as part of the process of deriving his own poetics toward elucidating the “white.”[17] White is one of the other two tones, and dark or black is the other: “a or the or neither and darker than / dark” (Birds, 5). That is, neither Zukofsky’s “A” nor The now supports Taggart’s current poetics, and the same statement repeats for emphasis at the end of section 11. This is a major shift in Taggart’s views about his antecedents.[18] The darkness of Zukofsky’s effort contrasts with “white it’s a white world” (Birds, 6) in the garden, and natural appearances, “white with delicate textures” (6). The grey scale of the poem’s title comes in with photographs: Richard Avedon’s of Pound, one of Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s hung on Taggart’s wall (and on the cover of this book), and those of three famous American photographers — Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Alfred Stieglitz. Taggart brings back another major theme, “only song matters” (10); song, as section 11 states it, “Call it a cadenza / some traveling music / off the scale” (11), and the presence of white are inherent in the garden, not merely part of photographic or literary contention. “Cadenza” appears later as the title of the final sequence in this volume. The intertextual and external references appear and reappear in the poems and their accumulated meaning in different contexts builds the ambient environment surrounding each poem and the entire volume. In addition, the ambience replaces the reliance on a logical narrative structure. After the first two poems the serial structure has been initiated and the major themes set in motion.


“Unveiling/Marianne Moore” sustains itself as a contemplative, serial poem in eighty-nine numbered sections with repetitions of theme and image and no linear plot or narrative.[19] Each section is a meditation which relates to the whole poem first by the process of meditation and second by recurring themes. The insertion of information into the poem amplifies the poem’s frame of reference with associative and metaphoric links. The central mission and process of the poem is the attempt to find an image, a metaphoric representation, a usable avatar, or a direct statement of the “visualization of white of whiteness / which is impossible” (4), as “Grey Scale/Zukofsky” puts it. The poem attempts to reveal the meaning of objects and ideas by discarding, undressing, unveiling them, by deconstructing them. The tearing apart of the veil of the Temple at the time of Christ’s death as told in Matthew 27:51 removed the barrier between the Holy presence and the ordinary believer. In like manner the “unveiling” of Marianne Moore should remove any barrier around Moore so that she can stand forth as the uncontested presence of white. If “white” contains the perception of a spiritual presence and “song” means the unveiling of the perception, then the larger exploration seeks to penetrate and uncover the formative processes of poetry.[20]

The poem begins its meditative course in Taggart’s woodland garden with mention of a “skinny tree,” “Acer tegmentosum,” “snake-barked maple” (12). The story of the tree’s classification and its significance lies under the entire poem:

understory tree
its story what’s under
her story what’s crimson what’s white

From the understory, the poem then moves out into the valley, “the / space between north and south mountain” (13) which includes Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Marianne Moore grew up at “343 North Hanover” (14). “Her story” (13), including the environment of the whole valley, operates as the field of imaginative action for the poem, and Moore becomes part of that territorial action because she lived there, was part of the surroundings: “local girl grew / up around here in this valley”:

the environment this valley between two blue mountains

the environment house in a row of houses a church continuous operation
what’s around here (45)

In enlarging the meditative discussion of her story, and his story, Taggart brings in a series of botanists and naturalists he calls “nature boys,” in recurring discussions of naming and classification, which then leads off to discussions of metaphor and grammar, and still engages the expanding frame of reference with recurring discussions of snakes and trees. Taggart also brings in a series of detectives to match the naturalists, along with female figures, including Marianne Moore and others from the volume’s first poem: Indian maidens, avatars, and nymphs of the muse of poetry. The poem continues with themes of whiteness and “naked truth.”

In “Refrains for Robert Quine,” Taggart refers, obliquely no doubt, to Williams’s “Marianne Moore.” In “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” he quotes the essay directly, and it now combines with the story of the tree as a compelling mission of this poem. Williams’s line “It is the white of a clarity beyond the facts”[21] becomes

white “of a clarity beyond
the facts” (Birds, 43)

and later

as shadows bring out the clarity of
the clarity of white (45)

a most profound although not the only motive white as clarity after
the facts this is the modern motive (61)

Marianne Moore was born in Kirkwood, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis; sections 2–4 begin Moore’s story and describe the house at “343 North Hanover” in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She comes into the poem because “Surroundings answer questions” (14). Moore’s talk of her early life appears in section 12 (21–22), as do her letters to Bryher and Elizabeth Bishop — “Her story in her own words” (21); “a mysterious constant perseverance” (66).[22] References to Moore’s translations of La Fontaine appear in sections 14–15 (22–23) and then again with the fable of “The Mouse Metamorphosed into a Man” in sections 59–64, where the fable presents a problem for the poem’s quest, especially when:

there’s a problem with the fable with that fast
old black magic that now you see/now you don’t magic a problem
with not seeing after the magic (54)[23]

Especially, that is, when lines from Harold Arlen’s song “That Old Black Magic,” “That old black magic has me in its spell / That old black magic that you weave so well,” enlarge the ambient meaning of the connections between popular and church music. After the prose passage in section 19 about reading, concentration, and the awareness of “the interior self” (Birds, 25), which Taggart has identified as from Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet (90), more of Moore’s story comes into the poem. She learns how to hum her own tunes when the hymns are played in church:

how to think for herself/all by herself an individual she self

how to hum along and be thinking about the classics the news that stays news
about the news of an animal fable the human
animal news (26)[24]

This practice is like humming a popular tune in another language, “une jeune fillette,” or listening to the hymn “Teach me, my God and King” and humming Dinah Washington’s version of her song “Teach Me Tonight” or listening to hymn “In all things thee I see” and humming the Flamingos version of “I Only Have Eyes For You” (Birds, 27). The passage from reading into “individual personality” in Carson’s statement then leads to a picture by Picabia of a nude woman “on her side reading / on a red blanket” (28) and then the point that:

a sound coming from the interior
of the body as the sound of a violin comes from the interior/the

andantino cantabile. (29)[25]

The movement to relate music and the process of poetry proceeds forward slowly, a process, section 27 says, one “Gradually learns=one day at a time” (29). Section 77 contains “some deductions” (61) about the choices Moore made in her life (61–64), including the assurance in a line from the W. C. Handy song “St. Louis Blues”: “St Louis woman with her diamond ring,” that she “wasn’t a St. Louis woman with her diamond ring,” that she wasn’t a lady from “a bordello” (61). References to white skin, “white body” (48), and “freckled bosom” (66) appear throughout the poem. In section 54 the reference to “a white body” is amplified in the following lines, “going through and through you causing you to / tremble” (48) to the African-American spiritual “Were You There,” also known as “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” in the line “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” Meditations on white, the perception of an active spirituality, appear and reappear about her; and she is associated with the search for the female muse, the nymph within the tree that likewise appears throughout the series of poems. She is a figure in the geography and mediations of the poem, but the “nature boys” are also part of the field of mediation.

The mission of the “nature boys” in section 50 is also the impetus of the entire poem:[26]

the motive of nature boys however shadowed by rejection by failure and flight

their motive the desire motive

desire to penetrate the no less profound need to penetrate
all that is veiled. (47)

The poem discusses naming and classifying on a practical and a theoretical level. In the poem’s epigraphy the citation of Hsieh Ho’s “Six Principles, which has the subtitle “Classified Record of Painters of Former Times,” places the idea of classification, established here in the sixth century, inside the ambience of the poem, and then predates the first mention of “Acer tegmentosum” which gives a specific example of modern classification by one of the nature boys. “Acer tegmentosum,” is a name produced from Carl Linnaeus’s binomial nomenclature, or in common language, “snake-barked maple” (12), which could be understood as a process of making a metaphor, by combining features of two objects, and in the combination revealing, or unveiling, a third factor. The discussion of naming and grammar turns back to a discussion of a “spiritual process.” This discussion occupies sections 5–7, and instigates a series of images about snakes: William Bartram was “stopped by a rattlesnake” (17) “another snaked-barked maple” (30), and the poem acknowledges that “there are snakes and snakes around here” (34) in the valley.[27] The process of naming and classifying becomes part of the understory of the poem, and then in places leads to a consideration of grammar as in the “combination of noun and adjective” (15) because “naming and classifying” is also a process of “bringing things into relations with other things” (16). In other cases, classifying leads to a consideration of “metonymy, identification / of the whole body by a part of the body” (37). Even with quotations from Walter J. Ong’s book The Presence of the Word in section 36 supporting the idea that sound is a visceral response of the whole body,[28] Marianne Moore “wouldn’t be commanded” (38) to hold this view of sound and metonymy. In still other cases classification brings in the term “naked name” (48), and later talking about one thing in terms of another comes up as a false way of dealing with a fable that does not tell the truth of nature. Talking in metaphors veils not unveils an object or idea by creating another frame of reference around it, so the course of the poem’s reliance on metaphor to express the white presence fades and is replaced by the direct, “undressed” naming. Presumably quoting Leonardo the poet/speaker realizes “metaphors may no longer be useful” (55).

William Bartram is also mentioned as a nature boy whose system of classification “helped people to understand the orders of the natural world”:

one of the rules
apparently saying one and another=the same

which gets your attention which
is another rule

as a snake gets your attention (17)

The poem notes, “he found Franklinia alatamaha / the Franklin tree” with “small white flowers gold dazzled centers never to be found in the wild again” (46). The poem gives the assurance that methods of classification result in “a system an effort to tell the truth” (16). From its initial lines, the poem establishes classification as a means of comprehension and here both the process of classification and the place of China in the views of the botanists get emphasized by the work of Tao-chi (or Shi Tao, 1642–1707) in categorizing Chinese arts into “the northern and the southern” (17).[29] Another botanist the French missionary to China Jean Pierre Armand David, found “the dove tree Davidia involucrata” (30), which is named after him. The poem also introduces Asa Gray (1810–1888), another American botanist who argued for a distinction between native plants and those introduced from outside a territory, while Taggart argues (with a gardener’s voice in the poem) that “native is what grows where it’s planted however it was planted” (34). The poem quotes directly from Ernest Henry Wilson’s A Naturalist in Western China with Vasculum, Camera, and Gun:[30]

Wilson somewhere in western China
a storm brewing and the light rapidly failing impossible
to take a photograph

“though no photograph … would give an adequate idea of the grandeur of
the … scene” (70)

These naturalists are all admirable men “in their pursuit motivated / by white,” “in their pursuit of identification of understanding of new / life/living forms” (71). Graham Stuart Thomas, the English horticulturalist called by the poem “the world’s greatest gardener” (56), is quoted directly from his book Trees in the Landscape:

It is not until one has watched natural growth year by year that
    one begins to understand
the meaning of patience and all the good it brings. If we learn  
    this we shall find ourselves
looking with equanimity on the apparent slowness of trees. (56, quoting Trees, 73)

Naturalists strove to tell the truth about nature, while detectives are obligated to find the truth in criminal investigations.[31] When the story of the poet/speaker enters the poem, he is a botanist, a namer, and a detective:

My story

bringing oneself to the tree
oneself/myself to her and a mystery

oneself/myself a detective in a mystery story (21)

Now and then the poet/speaker appears as “I,” but not as an egotistical intrusion. “I” is a participant in the field of action he is describing, like any attentive student of Charles Olson and Claude Levi-Strauss. He tells the stories about learning to read other books, at times comic books, during the sermons in church and to hum other songs while hymns are being sung. That is Taggart’s story, although in sections 21–25 the poem attributes the experiences to Marianne Moore. His mission is direct enough in section 11. He behaves like a detective:

asks questions was she the pale pale blond with anemia of some not-fatal but
incurable type was she in the know about snakes. (21)

Even as “the junior detective accidental nature boy having / bad eyes and less than wise” (42), he must assume the roles of characters in the poem, confront the tree as a metaphoric entity leading to the female spirit of the environment and in the poem personified by Marianne Moore, and then penetrate the mystery to the clarity of white. By the end of the poem, the poet/speaker mocks his own participation: “what could be more ridiculous / than exploring one’s own woods the prosaic the familiar” (71).

The poem returns to the woodland garden, with the idea that going deeper into it is the same as penetrating “memory” (69), but the poet/speaker acknowledges that being “without a nymph” would lead to tears of loneliness. The poem asserts with confidence:

nymph with/within the tree not
end or final aim
not the end of my story but an effort to tell the truth of what’s
further/beyond far into the woods. (69–70)

His original mission changes from finding the female spirit to finding the natural appearance of the holy presence deep in the physical and psychic woods in the environment of the valley. Solving other mysteries remains the work of serious detectives in the poem.

“Bill Slider the detective / inspector” (36) was created by Cynthia Harrold-Eagles, while Jules Maigret “on a case in Holland” (36) was created by George Simenon, and his cases leads off to a discussion of “Metonymy” and Linnaeus’s classification system (37). Grammar is as much a part of these investigations as it was for the naturalists. Inspector Chen Cao, Chief Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Bureau in the detective novels of Qix Xiaolong, and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe round out the reference series. T. S. Eliot appears in the poem as a detective looking for the “white” center of vision, as he did in the strenuous spiritual investigations of “Four Quartets”:

An investigation = following the tracks the lipstick traces
link = white and T. S. Eliot. (49)

But here a line from a song that Nat King Cole sang, “These Foolish Things Remind Me of You,” “A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,” makes a foolish, or ironic, link between the song and the detective work of the poem. Even the popular television program, “Dragnet,” starring Jack Webb comes into the poem: “Just the facts, mam” (38), and “… only the names have been changed to protect the innocent” (39). At points like this — and there are others — Taggart looks like a small boy at the edge of a Hogarth painting who is rolling a hoop or otherwise seeming not to care at all about the other people in a polite and proper painting.

Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson have already appeared as examples of the female muse, but older stories, like those told by Ovid in The Metamorphoses and Heroides of Daphne’s metamorphosis into a laurel tree and how an almond tree at Phyllis’s burial site blooms when her husband, Demophon, returns from war, amplify the figure.[32] The female figure appears in a painting by Rousseau — “La Charmeuse de serpents,” “The Snake Charmer” — with “a snake in her hair and hanging down over her shoulders” (43); in “Nude,” a painting by Francis Picabia in section 26 “to illustrate this gradual picture of reading” (28–9);[33] and in a painting by Magritte, “La Connaissance naturelle” (44). Marilyn Monroe was “too blond too late / to be a nymph” (60). “A single/singular nymph with/within” (69) is a recurrent theme. John Bartram observed “Indian nymphs” (46), and his observation leads to a discussion of Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson, who chose “to become not wives but nymphs those / who live with/within / trees” (47). Bartram’s son the naturalist William Bartram subsequently observes a group of “Cherokee virgins” which he calls “a gay assembly of hamadryades” (59). A definition follows in section 73:

Hama = with drus

a hamadryad a nymph living with/within a tree. (60)

Despite the attention given to the subject, the poem announces that the nymph and her avatars are not the main concern of the explorations — “nymph with/within the tree not / end or final aim” (69) — in the return to the natural setting of the woodland garden. The poet as detective goes back to investigate.

Like the repetitive appearance of nature boys, snakes, detectives, Marianne Moore’s story, and nymphs, references to white go out from and return to the passage from Williams’s essay on Moore:

white “of a clarity beyond
the facts” (43)

In the poem, white becomes spirituality, “White / the motive” (46) the perception of spirit in the natural surroundings: “shadows bring out the clarity of / the clarity of white” (45). References to white are associated with Moore — “the object it / could be a white body” (48) — and Dickinson’s poem #411 on “white election” (45) and poem #271 on “Over the fence,” “berries are nice” (55). Perceiving white is part of the process of “unveiling” to find the naked truth — “The truth is naked” (20) freed from metaphor with a clarity of its own. The motive toward white drives the necessity of the poem: “desire to penetrate the no less profound need to penetrate / all that is veiled” (47). In sections 51–54 the poem quotes Simone Weil’s instructions about attention and desire, and the need to penetrate to a center as spiritual obligation. “[A]ttention animated by desire is the whole foundation” (47) or the motive is “to receive in its naked truth the / object that / is to penetrate it” (48).[34] And in an earlier section Tao-chi’s classified discussions of Chinese painting lead to the announcement: “Tao-chi said vision should/must be penetrating” (25). Chinese painting joins the commands to penetrate and also concurs with Williams’s essay on Marianne Moore. Williams wrote: “The difficult thing to realize is that the thrust must go through to the white, at least somewhere,”[35] which comes through in Taggart’s poem as “the difficult/the thrust that must go through to the white” (48). Williams’s “thrust” joins Weil’s instructions “to penetrate” the spiritual imperative of the entire poem, the entire volume of poems. Achieving the original desire for the “visualization of white” (4) was “impossible”:

a most profound although not the only motive white as clarity after
the facts this is the modern motive

a profound need to be addressed without a dress (61)

And here the poem demands the statement of clarity “without a dress,” with neither a metaphor, nor corroborating fable or story, the thing itself without a dressing up in modifications.

Section 82 includes a quotation from an essay by Kierkegaard (identified along with references to Simone Weil by Taggart in “A Note and Acknowledgements” [90])[36] on unhappy childhood experiences and spirituality. Happy childhoods don’t lead to the spiritual life, “but the unhappy childhood and youth of the exceptions are transformed into spirit” (67). An unhappy childhood overcomes the resistance to happiness, and allows spiritual peace to emerge. The progress goes on to section 83, where a reminder of “spirit of place”

Into spirit a
spirit of the place what’s around here a spirit
of romance a nymph (67)

comes back into the series. Section 84 brings in qualifications for the nymph: she can be “but not finally/at last a siren” (67), and as section 85 states, “Neither the eiresione nor the daphnephoria” (67), the Greek rituals both involving olive branches from section 1 (12), now have immediate importance. She is not the “Raylettes” (68) — Ray Charles’s female backing singers — “but no siren not one of Bessie’s girls not one of Tullio Lombardo’s girls” (68), i.e. not prostitutes. After the process of negating possible visions of the nymph, the multiple versions of the female spirit transformed by renderings of Dickinson and Moore, section 87 rehearses or collects parts of the serial meditation as a way of penetrating the persistent questions of spirituality in the poem. Bartram’s description of “an assembly of gay hamadryads” (68) leads to the second quotation from Graham Stuart Thomas’s book Trees in the Landscape: “single trees and small clumps should lead to greater clumps and to the spinneys and woods.”[37] In the poem this becomes:

                                                 “single trees … should lead to
the spinneys and woods”

a single tree

a single/singular nymph with/within. (69)

The poet/speaker acknowledges that being “without a nymph” would lead to tears of loneliness, but the poem asserts with confidence:

nymph with/within the tree not
end or final aim
not the end of my story but an effort to tell the truth of what’s
further/beyond far into the woods. (69–70)

With this rejection and the third rejection of “Zhiliao” (67, 68, 70), a Chinese way of understanding, section 87 functions as a preliminary meditation in anticipation of the fulfilled meditation of section 89.

Section 89 begins with a citation from Wilson’s A Naturalist in Western China:

Wilson somewhere in western China
a storm brewing and the light rapidly failing impossible
to take a photograph (70)

The photograph would not “give an adequate idea of the grandeur of // the … scene” (70), just as the poem’s attempts to articulate the spiritual value of “white,” to penetrate to the “naked truth,” have been incomplete. Wilson, Bartram, the explorers, classifiers, and detectives in the poem are all “admirable” (70) “in their pursuit motivated / by white” (71), but at this point the negations of external modes of modification fall away and the poet/speaker returns to the woodland garden:

what could be more ridiculous

than exploring one’s own woods the prosaic the familiar
* * *
what more dangerous than memory
the prosaic the familiar the wholly lacking in scenes of grandeur (71)

Neither the nature boys, nor detectives, nor nymphs ancient or modern matter now in the immediate, unadorned, undressed, and unmodified reality of the garden itself:

what has been long prepared for what
cannot be prepared for

the sudden the moment subitane moment

shallow pools of water dull
leaves caught in the water bare brambles/multiflora on
the bank

no photograph
no photograph would (72)

“Far into the woods further/far into memory” (50) or deep in the brambles of memory the poet/speaker knows the presence of the holy, what Wordsworth called one of the “spots of time” or Stevens called “flicks” of feeling, or Robert Duncan called “where trembling leaf among a slumbering mass    light.”[38] Such moments have neither form, nor morphology, lexical or visual, so what he sees then comes into the poem removed into Chaucer’s language: “I saw a body ‘al hoolly her [hir] figure’ … I see a face ‘of sorwe so grete woon.’”[39] He sees a female figure, “withdrawn,” an imperfect image and the face of a sorrowing man, or an indirect way of saying that joy and sorrow are both part of the process of finding the “subitane moment” (Birds, 72); yet that moment “far into the woods” is “liberation” (73), in this case a full awareness of the holiness of the moment and a full awareness of the process of creativity. Somewhere behind this “subitane moment” lurk Wallace Stevens’s lines from “Credences of Summer,” not as a source but as an indication that Stevens and Taggart claim similar paths of poetic thinking:

Trace the gold sun about the whitened sky
Without evasion by a single metaphor.
Look at it in its essential barrenness
And say this, this is the centre that I see.
Fix it in eternal foliage

And fill the foliage with arrested peace,
Joy of such permanence, right ignorance
Of change still possible.[40]

Taggart has gone through an elaborate process in creating an imaginary environment for the penetration to the “naked” truth of “white,” but like Stevens he discards the old myths and stories, dresses (61), and evasions of metaphor and then uncovers the central spot of the holy, the numinous presence, within a natural setting. In the search to possess the “white,” the poet/speaker entertains and rejects versions of the naturalists, detectives, painters, philosophers, and craftsmen, as well as various faces of the female spirit, all coming back to a basic notion that if the experience of the interior woods is expressed in the theories and terms of other people, then the experience is taken over by their vocabulary and ways of thinking and seeing. But with the veils removed, that particular human experience can come forward as vital spiritual energy. In his essay on Moore, Williams claimed that handling of “thought, the word, the rhythm — all in the style” makes possible a new effect. “The effect is in the penetration of the light itself, how much, how little; the appearance of the luminous background.”[41] Williams cites no example from Moore’s poetry; he trusts fully the luminous without an image. The process of arriving at the point of vision then becomes an essential aspect of the contemplations, and so the poetics of the entire poem. The arrangements of objects in the woods provides a medium for unveiling the holy, but no material representation, no image of the holy; and that conclusive in-conclusion drives the search back to the rehearsals of the processes of thought and vision that prepared for the “subitane moment” (72). Such moments are stunning achievements. The serial mediation stops here momentarily before moving on to more speculation.


Taggart returns to the woodland garden, both actual and imagined, to generate still another means of envisioning the ambience of the poem. “Odor of Quince” is another meditative, serial poem; it has three numbered sections, each one dealing with the processes of seeing and knowing. While “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” proposed the appearance and reappearance of themes and images in extended contemplation of “white” and the persistence of song, “Odor of Quince” rests on a grid of references based on the number three. In “Chicago Breakdown” Taggart comments:

I think highly of grids. Grids make space, and space causes provocation, i.e., the search for the next word. The grid promotes provocation and provides a frame for the resonance of the words so that the word may have weight/depth, an agent for the transmission of tone, a tone agent. … But it don’t mean a thing unless the artist swings/goes “off-grid,”[42] forsakes and somehow goes off the power line of the grid, which otherwise captures & indeed becomes a prison house. Power house & prison house.[43]

By “grid,” Taggart does not mean a rigid structure of horizontal and vertical lines (though he does refer to Agnes Martin’s “shy/grossamer graph paper pencil lines” [75] in “Odor of Quince”), but any structure, geometric or lexical, that supplies a foundation for beginning a poem. As he says in the statement about the grid, the artist must get out of the provided structure to make his own statement, so the grid becomes “Power house & prison house,” or another way of asserting the process of making a poem as one of creation and destruction, destruction and creation — the same negative and positive factors within the vision of “liberation” in the previous poem.

“Odor of Quince” rests on a grid of threes. Three numbered sections each with its own subject: the odor of quince 1. “As sound,” 2. “As color,” and 3. “As sign.” “Three notes which fall away in / their own curve” (76). Section 1 gives three examples: “a stern Pompeian matron’s mantle,” “Judith Jamison’s slow fan skirt,” and “the peacock / display/flourishment of Johnny Hodges” (75). Section 2 mentions three painters of women, Renoir, Matisse, and de Kooning (78); also in section 2, Matisse’s painting “Nymph in the Forest / La Verdure” contains three female figures. In section 3 there are three men — “old Schimmel,” a man with an aesthetical beard,” and “a noble scholar” (80). Each of the sections is amplified by emerging patterns of correspondences. Charles Baudelaire’s famous poem “Correspondences” begins with things and then expands meanings by adding correspondences of perfume, sounds, and colors. Taggart’s poem, on the other hand, begins with the odor or perfume — the ambience of the quince — as the subject, and then finds correspondence in sound, color, and sign which have visual and conceptual images capable of invoking by association the odor of quince, its ambience of potential meaning.

The first section begins its correspondence of sound with the tenor saxophone music of Lester Young, who played with the Count Basie Band 1936–1940. Young had a gentle touch, allowing the notes to slide together in an easy rhythm unconstrained, as if the curve of an arm were “unwinding and / unbending a sigh” (74). The French word “désinvolture” contains this sophistication of sound and movement (as the poem says) and also the “long opening sigh note of a French tune” (74); Taggart has identified the tune as Claude Debussy’s “The Afternoon of a Faun.” Furthermore, the lines of the grid paintings of Agnes Martin extend past the grid into a spiritual space to invoke the “vowels” of the note, “gently warmly tenderly” (75) of Young’s vision as a musician. Three examples of people whose art does not extend beyond the notes of Lester Young still enlarge the poem’s frame of reference: neither the aristocratic matter of a stern “Pompeian matron’s mantle” (75) nor the choreography of the American dancer “Judith Jamison,” nor the flashy “display/flourishment of Johnny Hodges,” an alto saxophone player with Duke Ellington’s band. Debussy’s one note, a “long opening sigh” (75), breaks into a “triplet” of Lester Young’s notes and falls away as if

leaves from a tree in
late October/November (75)

and then changes into one note or leaf “seen three ways” (75), just before that one note moves into Lester Young, “Prez,” and Billie Holiday, “Lady Day,” playing and singing together, as they did in the late 1930s and 1940s, this time the song “Fine and Mellow” (76). The singing is “belle / et moelleuse” (76), velvety, mellow, but the notes ride with the “harp-tone vibrations glissandos / up and down the horn” (76) playing of Young, and lead through the rather dense construction of “a scattered florilège of inflorescences/flowers” (76), or an anthology of floral forms in an arabesque design, and in its musical “repeat and no-repeats of a Moroccan rhythm” (76) inspires in its extending design.

If this first section rests on a grid of threes, then under the grid hide references to things French that begin as a support for the grid and then emerge to join the poem’s meaning. Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” provides a method of composition by amplified associations, while Debussy’s “Afternoon of the Faun” extends the theme of notes into a pattern of notes and leaves in threes. “Désinvolture” describes Debussy’s tone but also Young’s “rapport and ardemment” (75). Young and Holiday perform “singing belle et moelleuse” (76). In the second section Taggart cites Renoir and Matisse as two of three painters of women, and that citation helps to clarify a group of inherent and perhaps hiding references in the first section. Taggart describes Lester Young’s music “in layers and layers chains of frills in the sashay of goldfish tails a loose/déshabillé / fabric” (76), and so the poem moves from music to a woman’s loose dressing gown, perhaps a gown of delicate fabric, “loose/déshabillé / fabric” (76). An invocation to Matisse’s designs for fabrics emerges in the poem, a design in which “is scattered a scattered florilège of inflorescences/flowers” (76), a visual anthology of designs corresponding to the patterns of “repeat/no-repeat Moroccan rhythm” (81).[44] Another association which becomes explicit in the second section is “some arabesque/Arabian motility” (79). The “sashay of goldfish tails” is an arabesque design, repeating endlessly without noticeable change or development. One of Matisse’s critics, Rémi Labrusse, writes about arabesque decoration: “The rhythmical repetition of pattern is the founding principle of an abolition of boundaries.”[45] The arabesque, repetitive patterns, then, reinforce the processes of verbal repetition that have been so much a feature of Taggart’s poetry from Peace on Earth onward, but now the correspondence with Matisse and arabesque design impel the poems past boundaries into open forms capable of expanding themselves with intricate associations.

Without a logical, or a narrative transition, the second section begins its correspondence of odor as color with stripping down and then painting a car, a “pink Cadillac,” from “the luxe calme and volupté junkyard”; the work will be done in “Rothko’s body shop” (77). (Another touch of Hogarth.) The pink Cadillac is an icon of popular culture — the 1956 Eldorado Seville or the 1958 Fleetwood with its rear fins for example. But “pink Cadillac” extends even further into iconic music with Bruce Springsteen’s song “Pink Cadillac” to Aretha Franklin’s album “Pink Cadillac” (1985) and her song “Freeway of Love,” which contains the lines “Ain’t we ridin’ on the freeway of love / In my pink Cadillac?”

But there is more to the correspondence of the color pink than popular culture. While “Luxe, calme and volupté” (1904–05) appears in the poem as a “junkyard,” it is also the title of a painting by Matisse, and the reference leads to Matisse’s painting “Nymph in the Forest (La Verdure)” toward the end of this section. The car in the Rothko paint shop has been deconstructed, “taken apart/stripped down to the essential torse/torso” (77), and the work to reconstruct it takes care and attention. Even though the reconstruction of the pink Cadillac will make a “new vehicle of transport and delight” (78), it will not be like paintings of women by Pierre Auguste Renoir, nor one by either Henri Matisse or the most contemporary of the three, Willem de Kooning. It will be a “new vehicle” (78), “a new vehicle no chrome” (78).

Taggart has identified Rothko’s painting “No 14” (1960) as an underlying presence in the poem, and the painting with its block of bright red on a black background exemplifies “the emergent impingement of pink light itself” (78). The red block in “No 14” seems to have its own inherent light source. In an essay Taggart talks of Rothko’s habit of adding layers of paint in the same way that the body shop adds layers of pink:

By applying thin washes of paint, one over another, and often allowing some of the colors in the bottom layers to appear through the top coat of pigment, Rothko achieves the effect of a hidden light source. … Rothko creates a quality of inner light which seems to emanate from the very core of the work.[46]

Even as the car painted and sanded with twenty-three coats of paint, “sanded/hand rubbed” (Birds, 78), emits light, in “the chemistry of paint” (78) it is risky, the poems says,

to ignore to take leave of/walk away from
all that’s been loved and to leave pink light all by itself (79)

The pink needs blue. In the poem, blue sustains the emerging presence of Matisse and brings back the presence of Rothko. Mixing pink and blue produces purple. The pink needs blue “to help give some arabesque/Arabian motility to the motility // which needs a fresco a whole wall of purple” (79).

The “female form” of the car becomes a set of three female images through the “chemistry of paint,” the addition of “some blue” to the mix. Matisse’s painting “Nymph in the Forest (La Verdure)” focuses the variations from the grid of three, and then leads the poem forward to a celebration of a “woman empurpled / on a / nonornamental ground” (79) whose sensuality and spiritual presence impinges on the actual scene. Also, the references recall the series of images of females and nymphs in “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” indicating Taggart’s persistent interest in the figure. In Matisse’s painting, the trees appear as white shafts, and a purple path leads from the bottom right into the green forest and white trees. There are three figures: an incomplete figure in the green background, another more complete drawing further down the left side, and then the purple figure on a yellow ground at the bottom of the painting. The process moves as the poem does from incomplete figures and statements to the full presentation of the image, a perception of sensual spirituality, “the ripeness slumbering purple body” (79):

the trees are porches/portals a parade approaching a parenthetical moon

 there’s a body

 undecorative body of a woman empurpled on a

 a nonornamental ground

 that is the ripeness of all that is ripeness slumbering purple body

     key to the dream and to the

 whole adamant mood of a fresco a wall

 which makes the impingement more than an impingement

 giving it drama ballets and divertissements depths and subtleties sensual

 summonings. (79)


In the allegory of the painting and the colors of correspondence, the blue path leads into the forest and then to the perception of the purple female form as a sensual awareness of a numinous presence. The poem calls this emergence “impingement,” the invasion of the ordinary by the spiritual.

Section 3 of the poem begins its searching out the correspondence of odor as “sign” with “a new sign carved / by a tramp” (80). Here Taggart stays close to a familiar definition of “sign” as an object or event standing for the existence of some other object or event; he does not rush off for modifications from French or German philosophers. He remains fixed with the basic sign in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, but after the tramp, which turns out to be a reference to Taggart himself earlier in his life, the poem again picks up the strand of things French with a reference to René Char’s poem “Sommeil aux Lupercales”:

Éclats de notre jeunesse, éclats pareils à des lézards chatoyants tirés de leur sommeil anfractueux ; dès lors pressés d’atteindre le voyageur fondamental dont ils demeurent solidaires.[47]

In Pastorelles Taggart used the figure of the searcher, the outsider — “Trakl’s wanderer” as “my wandering self” in “Pastorelles 4,”[48] and in “Car Museum” as “where I grew up runaway tramp and young rebel gentleman from Indiana.”[49] This figure comes into section 3 of Birds as first a tramp and then as

a tramp a person recognizable from childhood a childhood snapshot

blanket over his shoulder tie with binder twine among taller
than him dusty hollyhocks (80)

The tramp is on “le voyageur fondamental,” a spiritual quest. This tramp is not a “thief of / chickens” (80) nor an abductor of children. Instead he is more like “Old Schimmel,” Wilhelm Schimmel, a nineteenth-century German-born folk artist who traveled around Cumberland County (where Taggart now lives). He traded his carvings in pine — animals and birds, mainly eagles, were his favorite subjects — for food and/or lodging. The poem then lists two more people he is not like. Nor is he like “an aesthetical beard communing with nature” (80), which Taggart identified with a reproduction in James Cahill’s book Chinese Painting,[50] nor a man with “an heroical beard” (80) in a painting by the German painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840). Taggart as a tramp in his poem has “an animal alertness to signs” (81); he is attuned to the geography of place and attentive to “a new sign in the air” (81), or attentive to the appearance of new spiritual presences. The poem rehearses its own proposals for making “new signs,” and it turns out that the “harp-tone/vibraphone glissandos,” the “pink needing some blue,” and the purple figure all fill the same process that the carver, the tramp as carver/maker fulfills:

one and only long opening sigh



 harp-tone/vibraphone glissandos chains of frills inflorescences

 flowers simple

 stars in a repeat/no-repeat Moroccan rhythm

 pink needing some blue

 not some little girl blue on a fresco a whole wall of purple an oasis an orchard dream

 slumbering empurpled body a dream a mood

 a structure of mood

 depths and subtleties summonings

 emerging from that structure from a more-than-emergent pink impingement

 what a carver does (81)


If these examples are not enough, then consider “Mr. Johnson” the pipemaker” who in his pipe-making also makes signs. Examples appear without announcement:

a given for what was given a new sign in the air immediate and intimate and
no thief or shepherd either and must be/is moving on. (82)

Ripe quinces give off a strong fragrance, and the invitation in this poem is to expose what is in the air with the fragrance, what factors of perception and vision allow meaning to emerge from a complex of associations in an ambient environment. It is one thing to begin with lists of modifiers of sight as Taggart does in the “Meditations” of Remaining in Light, producing multiple layers of perspectives for examining Edward Hopper’s painting “A Woman in the Sun,” but quite another to allow explicit references, e.g. Agnes Martin, Rothko, and Lester Young, and implicit references to French music, aesthetics, and painting, to emerge as the formative energy of “a new sign” (82). In “Odor of Quince,” arabesque design, an endless repeating geometric pattern without a beginning and without an ending, provides a visual image for Taggart’s open universe. He “is moving on” (82) to other experiences out of the ambience of the quince. The poem stops without a formal conclusion, so the serial form projects the open forms of contemplation and the seemingly endless possibilities of perceiving and articulating new signs. The articulation of a poetics of vision in the garden continues as a meditative rehearsal.


The autobiographical poem “Show and Tell/Robert Creeley” reviews Taggart’s meeting Robert Creeley in the 1960s at the Aspen Institute near the Roaring Fork River in Colorado. Taggart

having spent the years in the song in the song/life business
paid dues (84)

reaffirms that “a poet’s thinking” (86) involves working with words as well as learning the positive/negative complex of the blues, “the meaning of the blues” (86). He also reaffirms the bonds between poetry and song, as well as the necessity of the female muse figure and other versions of the nymph: “a song requires a girl so bright/in bloom who rejoices the heart” (85). The poem ends with a tribute to Robert Creeley’s life as a poet, using words and rhythms very familiar to Creeley’s own poetry:

this poem is a song an
a work of love. (87)

After entering the imaginary garden in “Refrains for Robert Quine,” the reexamination of poetic antecedents in “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” the imperative of the search for an image or expression of “white” and “naked truth” in “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” joined to the elaborated demonstration of a poem’s ambience in “Order of Quince,” the volume comes to its stopping place first with a reinsertion of the personal into the discussions with the tribute to Robert Creeley, “Show and Tell/Robert Creeley,” and then with the initiation of a new series of poems. The series “Cadenza” indicates that the process of meditation and the searching after the points of perception of a holy presence has not stopped, that it will continue beyond these poems into future poems.

There Are Birds, cover photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

Weaving together stories and information from multiple sources informs the poetics of There Are Birds. The poems take place in a field of ideas about art, spirituality, literary matters, philosophy, intellectual history, and other subjects as well. Taggart wove the ideas and images together to constitute an ambience or an environment, an odor, as it were, surrounding the poems. No event, no perception of reality or of the holy, takes place alone; other corresponding events exist and the poem’s environment brings them together to articulate the process of thinking poetically. Finding the “white” is the major motif in the poems. This theme appears early in the volume’s second poem, “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” as the “visualization of white of whiteness” (4), while the volume’s first poem, “Refrains for Robert Quine,” recites the process of finding the visual image:

there is free song

 a free weaving of many songs

 song against song and other songs clustered/spun out in a blending of wavy


 doucement the phrase means what the songs mean


 that meaning so sweetly and freely as a gardener weaves flowers in her hair. (2)


“Cadenza 2” repeats, with some variations, passages from “Refrains for Robert Quine,” including the passage cited above, which appears as:

there is
free song a free weaving of many songs

song against song and other song in a blending of wavy pitches (88)

Far from fixing a unified whole with the penultimate poem referring to the first poem of the volume, the repetition here gives the assurance of having survived the passage through all the mediations of the poems in the volume, to emerge surrounded with the ambient meanings of the various contexts within which the lines and/or ideas appear. The process thrusts forward, not backward, forward to ongoing meditations:

There are birds there is birdsong
unmourning and unmournful in the white light (88)

Song, the articulation of the holy in language, existed at the start of this adventure and it still exists, now modified by the negative and positive factors “unmourning and unmournful in the white light,” typified by sorrow and joy, fear and awe. These two lines are then repeated from the earlier poem, along with a condensation of the early poem’s lines “like the light like / so sweetly woven song like lover never for sale” (3):

there are birds there is birdsong
unmourning and unmournful having come through

like the light like
like love never for sale. (88)

The permeating themes of song and light have “come through” to this final rehearsal, just before the tri-part repetition of the line “There are birds” in “Cadenza 3.”

These two poems, if they are a cadenza, are then the author’s improvised and technically innovative addition after the main body of the music (words) have been performed. Innovation comes in revisions after the long labor of the previous poems, and the brilliance comes in the rehearsal of  “there are birds” in different spatial contexts. As Taggart points out, the spaces between words and lines “provide time for rest, for an image to assume depth and definition, for reflection. They are not so much ‘holes’ as cadenced parts of the whole that is each poem” (90). Intertextual repetitions have appeared throughout the volume; together with the complex of external reference they sustained the poetics of meditation without a linear plot. The processes of thinking, perceiving, and meditating reveal “what’s under all the pictures and all the tones what gives depth and what gives / definition” (57); they induce and invoke an environment of interacting meaning surrounding central themes. It is one process of thought to review the struggles of other nature boys, detectives, philosophers, spiritualists, but quite another process to set aside their achievements and their modes of representation to preserve the uniqueness of the single moment of vision. Other representations cloud the unveiling in estranged vocabularies and rhetorical systems. Without grasping and making an image of the spiritual presence, the effort is thrust back into enacting the process of thought and vision in language. Through repetition and renaming in different contexts the volume projects poems in an open series extending out beyond the triple affirmation of “There are birds” (89).



1. In part, this essay draws on materials presented in my two previous essays on John Taggart: “In Loop, John Taggart’s Poem ‘Not Quite Parallel Lines’ and Questions of Serial Form,” Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics 35 (Summer/Fall 2007): 56–81, and “John Taggart, The Poems of Pastorelles: The Forest Park to the Plinth of Poetics,” Northwest Review 46, no. 1 (2008): 132–149. This essay expands the discussions of the previous essays and begins a consideration of Taggart’s ideas of poetics.

2. Taggart, There Are Birds (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2008), 4.

3. Robert Duncan, “The Poetics of Music: Stravinsky,” Occident, Spring 1948, 53–54. See Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, trans. Arthur Knode and Ignolf Dahl (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970).

4. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976).

5. John Taggart, Remaining in Light: Ant Meditations on a Painting By Edward Hopper (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 32.

6. Ibid., 44.

7. Ibid., 47.

8. Taggart, When the Saints (Jersey City: Talisman House, 1999), 56.

9. Taggart, Pastorelles (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2004), 3.

10. Taggart, When the Saints, 69.

11. William Carlos Williams, Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1934), 126.

12. Ibid., 124.

13. Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), 17.

14. Robert Quine (1942–2004) was an American guitarist who had a role in the punk rock movement, and who, like Taggart, graduated from Earlham College in 1965.

15. The first publication of “Refrains for Robert Quine” contained the following lines:

upon those notes tant

 ducement the phrase means what the notes mean

 layer/interwoven in the white light 



which in There Are Birds were revised as

song against song and other songs clustered/spun out in a blending of wavy


 doucement the phrase means what the songs mean

 freshness (2)


“Refrains for Robert Quine,” along with “Yellow Line” and “After the Party,” appeared first in Conjunctions (2005). “White” appears for the first time in the volume in “Grey Scale/Zukofsky.”

16. Williams, Collected Poems, Vol 1: 1909–1939, eds. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1986), 312.

17. See Ezra Pound, The Cantos (New York: New Directions, 1970). Melopoeia, Phanopoeia, and Logopoeia appear in Pound, “How to Read,” in Literary Essays, ed. T. S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1968), 25.

18. Taggart was much influenced by the poetry and poetics of Louis Zukofsky. He wrote a dissertation at Syracuse University on Zukofsky’s work: “Intending a Solid Object: A Study of Objectivist Poetics” (1974). He includes, for example, these essays in his collection Songs of Degrees: “Zukofsky’s Mantis,” “Louis Zukofsky: Songs of Degrees,” and “Come Shadow Come and Pick this Shadow.” See also Mark Scroggins, Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998), especially the chapter “Zukofsky and After: Post-Objectivist Poetics on John Taggart and Ronald Johnson,” 285–310.

19. Sections 1–27 and 73–87 were first published in Unveiling/Marianne Moore (Buffalo: Atticus/Finch Chapbooks, 2007); “Unveiling/Marianne Moore (sections 31–41)” appeared in Origin, Spring 2007. Like other poems which appeared in journals and magazines before There Are Birds, the poem “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” especially the late sections, was revised for book publication. Some revision will be mentioned in this essay, but sorting through Taggart’s process of revising will remain a subject of another essay.

20. While the poem is built up in part by the repetition and variation of key ideas, figures, and images, this essay will follow the emergence of the principles of perception not by explicating through all the sections one after the other but by following the movement of themes such as the geography of the woodland garden, classification, Marianne Moore, botanists, detectives, the female figure and white. References and inserted information have been identified as part of a means to explain the movements of the themes.

21. Williams, Selected Essays, 124.

22. See Marianne Moore, Selected Letters, ed. Bonnie Costello, Celeste Goodyear, and Cristanne Miller (New York: Knopf, 1997; Penguin, 1998).

23. See The Fables of La Fontaine, trans. Marianne Moore (New York: Viking Press, 1964).

24. Ezra Pound’s line “Literature is news that stays news” appears in this quotation. The source of the line, Pound’s The ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 1960), 29, appears in section 23 in the line “thinking not of course of the ABC/XYZ of it but the / A=B of it the veiled to be unveiled / of it a/the fabulous young girl” (27), along with another reference first to Dinah Washington’s version of “Teach Me Tonight”:

Let’s start with the ABC of it,

 Roll right down to the XYZ of it

 Help me solve the mystery of it,

 Teach me tonight!


and the metaphorical nature of classification in “the A=B of it,” as well as a detective’s sense of “the mystery of it.”

25. Francis Picabia, Francis Picabia: Late Works 1933–1953, ed. Zdenek Felix (Ostifildern-Ruit: Verlag Gerd Hatje; New York Distributed Art Publisher Inc., 1998).

26. To avoid over-explication, I’ve identified the principal names of the “nature boys” (Birds, 47) and given in parentheses the sections by numbers where they appear in the poem below. Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), a Swedish botanist, created a uniform “system for naming and classifying” (16) every species and created a uniform system for naming them called the bionomial nomenclature (sections 5, 16). John Bartram (1699–1777), from Darby, Pennsylvania, was an early American botanist and horticulturalist. As the poem notes, “he found Franklinia alatamaha / the Franklin tree,” which was “never to be found in the wild again.” The tree had “small white flowers” (Birds, 46). His Diary of a Journey through the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, a trip taken from July 1, 1765, to April 10, 1766, is quoted in section 48 on “the Indian nymphs” (46). William Bartram (1739–1823), son of John Bartram and an American naturalist, devoted “his entire life to the study of nature” (17). He compiled the most comprehensive list of American birds of his time. He appears in sections 29, 30, and 48, and his book Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida is quoted in sections 6, 72, and 87. In section 30, “William Bartram said ‘planting promises a more lasting pleasure’” (32). The quotation probably comes through Bartram from William Shenstone (1714–1763), a British poet and landscape gardener: “The works of a person that builds, begin immediately to decay; while those of him who plants begin directly to improve. In this, planting promises a more lasting pleasure, than building; which, were it to remain in equal perfection, would at best begin to moulder and want repairs in imagination” (“Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening,” 1764). Père Armand David (1826–1900) was a French priest and missionary to China who became a great collector of seeds and plants (section 29). Asa Gray (1810–1888), “the father of American botany” (32), was the most important American botanist of the nineteenth century (section 31). Graham Stuart Thomas (1909–2003), a British writer, “the world’s greatest / gardener” (56); his book Trees in the Landscape is quoted (sections 68, 87). Jane Colden (1724–1766) was an American botanist who made descriptions of New York State’s plants using Linnaeus’s procedures (section 79). Ernest Henry Wilson (1876–1930) in the poem “E. H. China Wilson,” better known as E. H. Wilson, was a British botanist and notable plant collector who introduced a large variety of Asian plant species to the West. He travelled and collected specimens in China, Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries. His book A Naturalist in Western China with Vasculum, Camera, and Gun (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1914), 1:60, is quoted (section 89). He also found “acre davidii another snake-barked maple” (section 29, page 30).

27. See Patrick Morrissey’s review of There Are Birds, “One Thing, a Thousand Things: Reading John Taggart,” Harp & Altar, 2008, especially for the discussion of metaphors.

28. See Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 120.

29. In a colophon dated 1686, Shi Tao said: “In painting, there are the Southern and the Northern schools, and in calligraphy, the methods of the Two Wangs (Wang Xizhi and Wang Xianzhi) … if someone asks whether I follow the Southern or the Northern School, or whether either school follows me, I hold my belly and laugh, replying, ‘I always use my own method!’” Shi Tao also “painted the handscroll ‘10,000 Crazy Dots’” (24), also called “Ten Thousand Ugly Ink Dots” (China Culture).

30. Mark Flanagan and Tony Kirkham, in Wilson’s China: A Century On (Kew: Kew Publishing, 2009), retrace Wilson’s travels and find some of the places he photographed.

31. I’ve identified the detectives and given in parentheses the sections by numbers where they appear in the poem. Cynthia Harrold-Eagles (1948–? ) has published seventeen novels about the Bill Slider, a British detective inspector working in the Shepherd’s Bush section of London, from Orchestrated Death to Dear Departed and Game Over (section 35). Georges Simenon (1903–1989), a Belgian writer, published seventy-five novels, 1931–1975, about Commissaire Jules Maigret, from Piere-le Letton to Maigret et M. Charles (sections 35, 79). Qiu Xiaolong, a Chinese writer now living in St. Louis, published four novels about Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau; two appeared with the English titles When Red Is Black and Loyal Character Dancer (section 55). Raymond Chandler (1888–1959), an Anglo-American novelist, created Philip Marlowe, a tireless private detective, in such well-known novels as The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye (section 56). The TV detective show featuring Sergeant Joe Friday is quoted in the poem: “Just the facts, mam” (section 37) and “… only the names have been changed to protect the innocent” (section 38).

32. Ovid, Metamorposes (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), book 1, 53; Heroides (New York: Viking Penguin, 1990), book 2, 60.

33. Identified by John Taggart in a letter to the author, September 23, 2010.

34. See Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Caufurd (New York: Putnam Press, 1951).

35. Williams, Selected Essays, 122.

36. Soren Kierkegaard, “1848–1849: The Widening of the Rift,” in Journals and Papers: A Selection, ed. and intro. Alastair Hannay (London: Penguin Books, 1996).

37. Graham Stuart Thomas, Trees in the Landscape (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983), 71.

38. Robert Duncan, Ground Work: Before the War, In the Dark, intro. Michael Palmer, eds. Robert J. Bertholf and James Maynard (New York: New Directions, 2006), 241.

39. Geoffrey Chaucer, “Troilus and Criseyde” and “The Book of the Duchesse,” in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robertson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), 72, 73.

40. Stevens, Collected Poems, 373.

41. Williams, Selected Essays, 128.

42. Behind this line is the title of a Duke Ellington song from the 1940s, “It Don’t Mean a Thing, if It Ain’t Got That Swing.”

43. John Taggart, “Chicago Breakdown,” 1913: A Journal of Forms, no. 2 (2005): 67–72.

44. Taggart cites Pierre Schneider, Matisse, trans. Michael Taylor and Bridget Strevens Romer (New York: Rizzoli, 1984); more recent volumes resulting from exhibitions are John Elderfield, Henrí Matisse: A Retrospective (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992), and Hilary Spurling et al., Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams (London/New York: Royal Academy of Arts/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005).

45. Rémi Labrusse, “‘What Remains Belongs to God’: Henri Matisse, Alois Riegl and the Arts of Islam,” in Matisse, His Art and His Textiles, 55.

46. Taggart, Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994), 71.

47. René Char, La nuit talismanique in Oeuvres completes (Paris: La Pléiade, 1983), 505.

48. Taggart, Pastorelles, 26.

49. Ibid., 66.

50. James Cahill, Chinese Painting, new edition (Geneva: Skira; distributed by Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1972).

'Surroundings answer questions'

Experimental pastoralisms in O’Brien and Taggart

At the beginning of William Empson’s 1935 landmark study Some Versions of Pastoral, he declares: “It is hard for an Englishman to talk definitely about proletarian art, because in England it has never been a genre with settled principles, and such as there is of it, that I have seen, is bad … my suspicion, as I shall try to make clear, is that it is liable to a false limitation.”[1] Three things are interesting to me in this passage: first, that the pastoral is suggested as an historically unsettled term, a term potential of contingency and resistance; second, that the pastoral is identified as, or can be seen to have evolved into a proletarian literature, or vice versa — “I think good proletarian art is usually Covert Pastoral,” says Empson (6) — and third, that this evolution is prone to a “false limit” that can be used well or poorly. Empson’s provisional formulation attempts the extension of the pastoral mode fully into modernity — to see its commentary on class and as economics, and to see it as a drama of place. In this way the pastoral’s “false limit” — variously, its praise of simplicity, meditation on ease, the ideal state, a rural setting and the catalogue of its particulars, a city dweller’s/shepherd’s point of view, songs of shepherds, travels, etc. — is shown to be unusually flexible, working effectively a two-thousand-year critique of civilization that is also a class allegory strengthened by the bracketing simplicity of its ideal. Empson’s destabilization offers up a surprising range of takes — Celine, Milton, Brecht, Faulkner, Louis Carroll, etc. — generating a profitable lens through which to view the narrative of modernity, but it has to look back to get there. Radical pastoral, then, a translation practice of simultaneities, the complex in the simple, and vice versa, a dialectic that keeps the contradiction sufficiently tensed to arouse strong feelings around race, war, the factory, homeland, revolution.

In a more or less subsequent manner this is more or less the argument Leo Marx offered over fifty years ago in The Machine in the Garden.[2] That volume transplants the pastoral narrative to America, deftly plumbing the contradictions of our rural desires in this “last best place” while managing to largely disable the class critique. More false limit, or the false limit revised for the historical situation of a nineteenth-century new world. Evoking at once nostalgia and futurity, Marx’s formulation of America hangs on the uniquely “open” character of its horizon. A limitless landscape “devoid” of people, how is dominion not inevitable? But then there’s a steamboat bearing down on Huck and Jim, something faustian in our bargain with freedom. Marx’s complex pastorality both admits and critiques technology’s American demos; how, in short, the vastness of the continent magnifies the train. While this paradox is not the ostensible subject of this essay it’s important to note how legibly it is written upon the American landscape; everything from the whiteness of the whale to white flight to the suburbs inscribes the false limit of our abundance. In succession horse, train, car, and plane give projective size to what is manifest in our destiny.[3] But there’s a commensurate shadow. Given America’s still-imagined plenitude, it seems clear that a Keystone pipeline or a new BP Gulf rig will configure an unsettlingly green narrative for the foreseeable future.

For better or worse, this is equally true of our current literatures. Into the Wild was a huge hit; big-ticket westerns are making a movie comeback; Survivor: wherever is a TV staple. Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Louise Erdrich, Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, etc., these leading authors all make various use of the pastoral’s bracketing “simplicity.” The situation in poetry is not much different. Laureate poetry, or what Charles Altieri described way back in the mid-’80s as “scenic poetry” and “its concern for modest, highly crafted narrative structures producing moments of sudden illumination” in a natural setting,[4] still holds sway in the Academy. We want our garden and we want nostalgia for our lost garden, an epiphany experienced in the garden. Just click on Safari to the latest episode of Revolution. Some versions of the apocalypse. However deadly the paradoxes of our errand, we continue to take them. This is troubling and hopeful both. But what to do? How to manage the excess of our rueful idyll?


Two poets — Geoffrey G. O’Brien, early career, and John Taggart, late — both engage pastoral practices in radically transformative ways that offer fresh and unsettling versions for a new century’s green thirst. Specifically, O’Brien, in his second book, Green and Gray,[5] and Taggart, in his twelfth, Pastorelles,[6] variously interrogate the pastoral tradition as a viable means of not only writing poems, but engaging contemporary reality and its emerging environmental crisis. While admiring of the pastoral tradition’s mode of instruction and lyric agency, both poets question the inherent idealism attendant to it, and attempt, like Virgil, to politicize what is simultaneously a tradition, a genre, and a mode to “make it new,” or, failing that, leave it post. Both O’Brien and Taggart operate in a curiously dialogical manner that moves in space and time, reveals class paradigms, and erodes boundaries of here/now, utopian/arcadian, rural/urban, upper/lower, local/global, nature/culture, apart from/a part of nature, the pastoral, etc. Vibrant in their deterritorializing of the pastoral, their differences are dramatic, and their shared sympathies striking; what makes the comparison interesting is that each might be considered necessary to a sharp accounting of contemporary American avant-garde poetry. As such, O’Brien and Taggart offer an experimental pastoralism that is at once charged with a theoretically sophisticated — and American — language and recognizable as a lyric trace. Their relative disclosures of earth, the local, country, polis, city, literary tradition, etc. emanate from direct sensory experience while employing a larger allegory of pastoralism in ethically constructive ways. Yet they live on opposite sides of America, come from different generations, and have decidedly urban (Bay Area, O’Brien) and rural (Pennsylvania, Taggart) locales. Might the future survival of American poetics lie at its experimentally green edges? How is it that both Geoffrey G. O’Brien and John Taggart pursue the ethical case? And why do they turn to the pastoral tradition to source this sustainable futurity?

One cannot imagine now except as all parts,
as inventory, case, self-explanation.
It was to be entire days and is
the time of writing, impossible enterprise
whose crimson cloth has been removed. (O’Brien, “Realia,” 26)


I turn to Geoffrey G. O’Brien first because to me he is the most surprising. A young, urban poet, whose first book was called The Guns and Flags Project,[7] you might not expect him to be of a green mind. As I hear it, the work rises out of Stevens, reaches towards Ashbery by way of Zizek; it is meditative, elegiac, imbued with the thrill and hangover of theory. Yet certainly, too, there is the ethical seed of a resistant lyric that works very hard to reclaim the behavior of both our metaphoric and literal fields of being. This, the opening lines of the first poem, “The Premiere of Reappearance”: “It is passionately in our lives, the smell of rain, / radiation of an oil through the middle of the day, / the taste abides, old fruit on a plate / but after so long the rind is clear” (3). In Green and Gray O’Brien makes more explicit the dependencies of nature and culture while maintaining an openness of address that makes this book seem, at first glance, poetry about American belatedness, exhaustion. This crisis rises as the wreck of late-Bush modernity, “Signs of effort on the face of the air / There are those who wait in longing to hear / and those around whom dead waves flow / It’s like twilight to be alive now” (“To Classes,” 90). O’Brien’s twilight accounting marks this effort as a species of Postmodern ennui. Yet it is the insufficiency of that response that marks the real ‘turn’ of Green and Gray. For out of boredom comes invention, and out of invention comes the discovery of a necessary subject.

How long to sit and how long be faithful

to the shapes taken by the future, live

in the renewable source of that certainty —

lemons in water, waiter’s sleeves, slates

the birds rise from to be together

above the square, flights in formation

simple hypnotic returns (“The Bulletin of Lyon,” 16)


That subject — the world and our inevitable sensory engagement with it — is there in the hypnotic return of birds, always already present as a renewable source of certainty. The poet is sitting “in a chair at the table in a corner of the square.” And it is both “the gray of the stone and the green of the trees” that reveals the interdependencies of each. Nature and culture, city and country, poet and the birds, these binaries blend and quiver “in the imperial flower of a partial answer” that is the state of our locus amenis. The answer is not forthcoming, or rather is partial in the refusal of a belatedness that would admit a prior utopia. The imperial flower continues to flower; “the idea, long in coming, is itself / simple as a flower opening, / too simple to be heard but still opening.”

Throughout Green and Gray this temporal suspension is a willful negotiation with the arcadian-utopian fantasy of the pastoral. As a kind of no-place, its simplicity enables an eternal present that alternately ironizes and eulogizes an unfinished and troubling contemporaneity:

it was summer, very strong,

passing organizations,

which never finished anything

and ended in making

all this, cold coals

of wildflowers, wars

at the centers, they go on for years

burning near the front

and from below. (“Three Seasons,” 11)


Nature, the summer, exists as an overwhelming inevitability which is nonetheless ephemeral; nonetheless ephemeral as the “cold coals of wildflowers, wars / at the centers.” Time and space are conflated through a geologic imagining that spatializes vertically as well as horizontally. Things spread out; all deposition is a politically charged activity. What is unfinished still “makes all this” and it burns up “from below” just as equally as across. And if everything is passing — both fleeting and acceptable — then everything is disturbingly new.

Such is the case in the appropriately named “The New,” where “From that time onwards / one day it happened / during that time / for so long/ after the departure” (12). We are marked by local time but unable to refuse its extension. It is Dante’s Vita Nova coming forward, and Benjamin’s endless archive spreading out; it’s an omnidirectional dream syntax and a political imagination recalibrating Virgilian allegory for war-sick late capitalism:

Money is the sun at night, spirit

is a parrot. What is the thing?

A public assembly on a hill,

a hill the color of sage and money.

The assembly sounds like birds

and what it says is that

in another world we will not matter. (“On the Phantom Estate,” 37)


The hill is “the color of sage and money,” a dangerous conflation, a “public assembly” that pervades our dreams and our poetries. We are haunted, therefore, by the dead who have yet to be born, their endless play in the skirmishes of capital: “They are deported into space as spirit / and reassemble under the hills. The sun returns, and the birds.”

Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s insistence is that utopia is the present case, however troubled, such that we must till this field, that poem, for specific instruction on existence. This is a canny way of disabling nostalgia and making the pastoral possibility reify labor — in the city as much as in the country, in war as much as peace, in writing as much as factories. It’s scary, this no escape/no place, a thousand plateaus of becoming bombs. Or, as he says in the ruthlessly anaphoric “Some Versions Of,” “There is no reason a poem would begin / with reference to the territory,” and later: “No reason a poem would start / by censoring my shame or yours / at having a country or of the others,” and later still:

As snow or fire no unreal season

poem would begin by stating

by steadily flashing as utopia

Transmits its coordinates utopiates

headed in all directions no reason

the mean of a life and a moment is (3–5)


Here, Empson’s false limit is temporal; there is no past from which to sing, only the present song “headed in all directions no reason.” That it is headed somewhere, that it is momentous, is undeniable, and the vortexual sweep of this poem (and many of the poems in Green and Gray that employ anaphora, repetend, chiasmus, word sets, and ideolects) sweeps us along in “the remorse of the senses subtracted from experience” (“Logic of Confession”). I take O’Brien’s bewilderment as a genuine cri de coeur, elegiac, lamentative, but for our present utopia which seems so morally lost to us. I take this also as a preservational poetics that would economize its speech acts, the ecology of the poem seeking to preserve our sense record by repetition, insistence. This is important in the proletarian suggestiveness of class struggle, its alignment to environmental ethics, and how this might play as the particular challenge that progress imposes on our senses.

Deterritorializing the ideal as either a past or future conception, the poem “Realia” addresses our sensory survival as the possibility of the real in our simulated reality: “My people, provided I have one, are like women and men,” which is to say human, corporeal, short on cash. “Their dreams are like dreams filled with things: / citizens, coins, their faces, flames and signs, snow, air, earth, sighs, sun” (26). We are contingent upon things. Wheelbarrows, sighs, suns. And the place of our senses discloses the scene. Notice how the impulse to list draws an apposite relationship in the environment, something of scale, but not exactly metaphoric, “All morning each emphasis of field / reveals its portion of the unpredicted”; “one comes before, one after, / passing like expressions on a face”; and “in countless local ways it’s not to be / looked at directly, is sunlight falling up streets, / letters fading for want of explanation.” O’Brien’s similes literalize the comparisons. “[His] people are like men and women.” The pitiless play of the senses equilibrates the field, temporally and spatially. Invoking one of the muses of the book, he declares “This is the prediction of Beatrice:”

                                                        all things:
are simple and subtle, material and unpredicted,

helpless, divided, idyllic, claims and flares,

soldiers, children, anarchy, time unapproachable.

This is the other prediction of Beatrice:

Each night evening emerges.

Exactly this exuberance

brought us together with those we used to know. (“Realia,” 27)


To be so out of touch with those we used to know. To be instructed on the “simple and subtle, material and unpredicted” fate of our senses. The pastoral gesture of the poem to catalogue the real is driven by a contingency — our senses — those people you might belong to, your need to address them. The poem rises in the lyric apostrophizing, creating a utopia of the liberated present. We return, at the end of the poem, to the world where “each night evening emerges.”

What’s astonishing to me about this poem — and many poems in the book — is the way art rises to artifact. The world is contingent upon the poem, too; this one’s called “Realia,” and its textual pleasure, both lyric and semiotic, produces another sensory experience — an apposite poem, even a metaphor, dear god — that could easily appear in one of O’Brien’s lists. I think of this as O’Brien’s lyric joy, his resistant metapoetics (virtually all of the poems are ars poetica), and the working possibility of song in a late-capitalist marketplace. There’s an economics to this writing. A poet makes things; ideas materialize the poem. And one thing resembles another, or is it replaces? “After noticing a change in the meaning of the word / “ironic,” she sat at home making the air / flow around her exactly as before.” The pleasures of this poem, “Ajar” — its use of Stevens and its collapse of the metaphor of art to personhood (O’Brien makes a ‘she’ making “the air flow around her”) — lie in their endless game of replacement. The poem is so extensive as to be an opening (ajar) and something awry (ajar).

Geoffrey G. O’Brien.

A more immediate example might be the poem “Fountain.” Here, the poem is the fountain, a free space where similitude proliferates rhizomatically, line after line, poem after poem: “There is no such thing as the abrupt / Doubleness is the first plural / The abrupt comes in many forms.” An endless stream of replacements, “Again the bottom predicts a top / Fresh sources resemble each other / Goods are exchanged throughout the day” (34). That the poem is exchanged, is the pure product of language and of labor, is confirmatory, patriotic, and echoes — in many of the poems of Green and Gray — a committed (and various) American poetics from Emerson to Frost to Stein to Williams to Stevens to Ashbery. In this regard I like O’Brien for an Americanness that both positively and negatively utilizes American spaces. He is certainly an urban poet, but his sophisticated handling of lyric agency sings the café into the garden. And it is not simply an American impulse, or a postmodern impulse, to destabilize the binary scheme. Humanity’s course has always been green and gray. Utopia is everywhere. O’Brien’s innovation is precisely this erosion of the pastoral.

What is perhaps more surprising — and here we find a principal difference between O’Brien and Taggart — is that the poems in Green and Gray rarely describe external reality. Or rather rarely describe an actual place from which ideas might be locally situated. Or rather rarely describe at all. O’Brien uses a phenomenological engagement with senses real and imagined, present and remembered, to produce a meditative stream of relations that rise to a disturbingly recognizable “supreme fiction.” These are often circulated through an idea (the troubadour, simulacra, psychoanalysis, excursus), a text (The Inferno, the Patriot Act, Gravity’s Rainbow, Aristotle’s Poetics), a person (Stevens, Lacan, Charles Fourier, Nietzsche, Celan, Gertrude Stein), or a procedure (accentual verse, anaphora, replacement, erasure). Always, to my mind, the pastoral ideal hovers behind the work, a ghost form that engages the speakingness of the poems. This echo is particularly striking in O’Brien, and is large part of my sense of its instruction. There is much commentary about weather, and a lot of calendrical notation (“Three Seasons,” “Spring Struggle,” “A Calendar,” “In Re Others”); there is a general querying of the garden (“Deer Isle,” “In Gardens Where Saints Meet,” “Sent Past Exhibits,” “At the Changing Villa”). And O’Brien plays pastoral’s paradoxical complexity as simultaneously a tradition, a subject, and a mode. Indeed, the first poem of the book, “Some Versions Of,” seems to even echo Empson’s famous book, and his sense of the pastoral’s endless proliferation. This sophisticated poetics variously enacts an erasure of the binary codes to which we are so addicted, and to which the pastoral tradition has relied. Not green or gray but green and gray. Yet we would never mistake O’Brien for A. R. Ammons or Pattiann Rogers. It is the surprisingly urbane means by which O’Brien dialogizes the pastoral that makes it so exciting and new.

One of the more effective reconfigurations of the pastoral in Green and Gray involves lyric agency, or more directly, the shepherd’s song. Two poems tackle this rather directly. Here’s the opening quatrain of “Paraphrase of Aragon”: “I hear I hear the world is there / It passes from people on the road / More than my heart I listen to them / The world is badly made my tired heart” (6). Maintaining the quatrain patterning, O’Brien charges his song with a generally four-beat accentual pulse that generates a particularly insistent music. This is partly due to the address — found throughout Green and Gray — to the “men and women” of his time, and to his invocation of song itself as an ethical agent: “If not to sing then to hum with the sun / so that the shade is made more human”; and “I believe in it sometimes I acknowledge it to you / While not believing my ears / I am truly your similar / I am quite similar to you” (8). This strum of the lyre also gathers focus by a kind of aping of troubadour song. There’s something archaic in this accentual verse. And the poem is called, after all, “Paraphrase of Aragon,” such that the conflated echoes of feudal Spain, Catherine of Aragon, the private language of Argonese, the Dadaist play of the poet Louis Aragon, even the character Aragorn from Lord of the Rings, all gather to produce a unique and affecting music.

Another, perhaps more antic example of O’Brien’s singingness is the poem “Man of Joy.” Here the sense of the ars poetica is explicit in its description of the poet at his joyous avocation. The poem arises out of a declamatory first person that is hard to ignore:

Unless I am much mistaken everything

is music, but that’s not really right.

What can one say of a desire

for new connections other than that it swells

up out of feeling happy, wanting

to play, not knowing how to (30)


I take “the companion in the dark” to be the poem, or the poem’s addressee, or the poem addressing the world. The poem swells on its pronouncements of necessity, and on the speech act that crank its joy. Say, “To be happy I think of as / new editions of the same world / swelling or rising from a fur-lined machine”; and “I hear the nothing / I have to say until I begin … I am not / at a loss for examples”; and “it’s a parable of isolation to remember / the name of a painting while traveling /and a parable of sound to say it” (32).

Ultimately, in this assured and startling second book, Geoffrey G. O’Brien evokes the possibility of an experimental poetics to unsettle our current thinking. Whether it be utopia, or a dream of a distant arcadia; whether it be a neopastoralism, or a post-pastoral urban mash-up of the wreckage of modernity, we are struck by the lyric urgency of these poems; they are parables of sound that reawaken our actual senses. These are crucially the source of any ethical application to the world, for they substantiate the body subject and activate its means of knowledge. As Raymond Williams sorted out, our country needs our city, and the city knows itself by the echoes of our country inheritance.[8] O’Brien is urban, but he goes to the beach; he’s the city limit by which we remember our country song. As such, the urban present is the  false limit from which to intuit the history of the pastoral. Green and Gray uses the absorptive capacities of capitalism and English to recalibrate our senses, and expose the ethical conundrums of the present tense. It is an exuberant speaker in these poems; it is speech acts and shimmering metaphors of a supreme unsettlement. O’Brien’s meditative present gives me an odd sense of hope.

This seems equally true in his next book, Metropole,[9] which I will mention simply for the quality of its extension. Much of the same poetics are at work in this book — the urban setting, (faux) sylvan groves, mortality, an emphasis on saying and singing, the passing of seasons, catalogues of plants and flowers — though formally the book operates quite differently. The most notable emblem of this can be found in the long title poem, which manages through a more or less iambic cantillation of sentences to augur material recognitions of cosmic facts: “The beaches overturn without a proper break” how “The sun revolves around the earth revolves around the sun.” Commuting, noting the passage of time, the faces of strangers, a public concern for the fragility of existence emerges from a collective sense of collapse. It may be the city, but it reveals our relationship to nature: “Funding now requires private lives embrace catastrophe … And yet the edge possessions cut in air provokes a thought of more can be relied upon. 8th Ave is blocked but yes, whole neighborhoods can be revisited” (97). O’Brien himself has noted the book as kind of fall into prose, with the title poem operating as a kind of ars poetica of how detached and belated the garden feels. Is this the fate of arcadia/utopia? Ghostly iambs haunting the train station of sentences? Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s radical taxonomy of American values is a trenchant perch from which to question our edenic inheritances.

For dizzily above the world the blinking lights, collective life in flight, abstractedly survive commemoration. Then the season turns and current flows into the picture. A muddy coat of brown gives way, revealing brilliant greens and blues about the earth there’s little more to say unless you stop and listen to its roaring unawares (95)


A very different but no less experimental attempt at a new American pastoralism can be found in John Taggart’s Pastorelles. Published in 2004, this book, Taggart’s twelfth, finds him plumbing his local scene for the material real. If O’Brien is the City Dweller singing to the shepherd, Taggart is the Wandering Alto riffing country (or more likely jazz) at the cafe. A longtime rural Pennsylvania dweller, Taggart taught for many years at Shippensburg State. Yet he’s a seminal figure in postwar American avant-garde poetry — its generally urban ethos — and an inheritor and articulator of Objectivist poetics, particularly Zukofsky and George Oppen. So too, his work is deeply informed by music — his interest in post-bop jazz, Gregorian chant and Minimalism — and how these iterate as a serial poetics. Filled with these dichotomous rhythms, Taggart in Pastorelles destabilizes the sonic architecture of the poem while variously interrogating the pastoral tradition. He, too, makes a cultural artifact (art for art for Art Tatum). But it’s in the rural-actual moment more than any recollected tranquility. In this regard his work is decidedly nonmetaphoric, and might be characterized as post-pastoral for its a priori rejection of the ideal. Rather, Taggart seeks to resist, on the one hand, the mainstream imagistic tradition of American poetry (Altieri’s “scenic poetry”), and on the other, the text-privileged, highly theorized poetry of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing. Neither apotheosis seems acceptable to Taggart, and indeed apotheosis is the problem. The poem should disclose its subject in the manner of its material without any prior claims upon it. And it should do so from an explicit or implicit place. Indeed, it is the density with which it authentically thinks through place that allows it vision, but it is a vision of this moment, that object, without teleological claim. As he says of his beloved Oppen, “[he] does not propose to entertain or to amaze by playing upon ideas already at hand, but to think, ‘naked’ in the poem to some purpose.”[10]

That purpose, both in Pastorelles and throughout Taggart’s oeuvre, is to ground the poem’s thinking, its language, in the material world and as a material fact. He suggests this early on in the poem “Thales the Milesian/In a Time of Drought.” By invoking Thales of Milesia, the “first philosopher of the first philosophers,” Taggart makes clear his impulses are to demythologize poetry. He reaches back to the origins of pre-Socratic philosophy and focuses the poem’s attention on matter:

first of the first philosophers of material substance

the source of all existing things

that from which a thing first comes into being

and into which it is finally destroyed

the substance persisting (10)


“The substance persisting” — the physical world — is given solidity by its animating principle, water. Our blue planet breathes, however threatened, with this material fact. But we know water not by its global character but by its local manifestation. The poem evolves across its slash (across time?) to this “time of drought.” Juxtaposed to that ancient master, drought dramatizes the tenuous endurance of “the substance persisting.” Taken at this far end of the telescope, we are left presently with a feeling that the “element and first principle” of our survival is fleeting. Without much reaching, I feel some address towards that condition we call global warming. But this is not an idea presented so much as an experience had:

In a time of drought

the time in the morning in a time


already too dry and too warm

and without rain

all day the time remaining too dry and too warm

all day

day after day

in a time remaining too dry and too warm

too dry and too warm

and without rain (11)


The repetition of too (seven times), time (five), dry (five), warm (four) and day (three) produce an insistent turning of the experience of drought; we sense it as duration, “a time of drought,” and acceleration “already too dry and too warm.” Yet we experience it ultimately as a poem, the lines spilling and repeating, phrase by phrase, a voice turning the concern. The irregular lengths offer counterpoint, an over/under cadence that pulses with alarm. Met with this interior meditation, we might expect the poem to move up and out into a global alert. Yet it resolves itself by a move back into the particular: “copper beeches / young leaves of the young copper beeches / shriveled up shapes.” It is not the general condition but the material case that’s visible. These are the trees of Taggart’s south-central Pennsylvania hit hard by drought in the 1990s. Place and time in the poem are occasioned by Taggart’s literal experience, and they manifest the compositional process in the repetitions of the poem. Whatever symbolic import we attach to the juxtapositional strategy of “Thales the Milesian/In a Time of Drought” it registers first as a local ambience. Taggart is no Eliot; a physical ruminant, turning the ground of the poem, he chants “these shriveled up shapes in the shapes of corpses.” In this way the “shapes in the shapes of clutching” that end the poem are as much the feeling of the trees as the feeling of the poem. Exchange, inhabitation, a readerly horizon opened by recurring sounds and motifs. Again and again in Pastorelles Taggart moves us back and forth between the density of the physical landscape and the associational field it generates.

Ideas come from places, and places disclose their real subjects as layers of inhabitation, weather. More likely than not, Taggart’s speaker is poised in situ, thinking on a scene, into a scene. The meditative tone of Pastorelles emerges from observation; context suggests the relationship of locally organized spaces and times. Take the first poem in the book, the haunting “Carlisle Indian Industrial School,”

Now a college of the military

war college

what was once the Carlisle Indian Industrial School

photography on a wall of the college

young Indian couple

almost prim almost properly “Victorian” (1)


The poem describes a site, an exterior, a building, until we are suddenly inside the college looking at a “photograph on a wall of the college.” Taggart cleverly enjambs the title into the poem to juxtapose a then to a now. But the time slips again — backward — with the third line of the poem; we oscillate between these competing times such that we are present in both. And it is inside a building and outside a building; inside the photograph and outside the photograph. Taggart’s thinking-through-the-object creates a visionary space where “their eyes flashing / black / unforgettable their flashing black eyes.” I get a jolt from this act of witness, the poem as much as the photograph; the poem sees the photograph, and suddenly the chilling history of our genocidal ‘settlement’ of America comes alive. This site itself — a late-nineteenth-century boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, that tried to assimilate Native American children — suggests the relationships of the poem. College to war, conquered to conqueror, “flashing black eyes” to a “brooch coat and tie.” The poem ends with an ethical reverberation that comes from the place: “lesson / for those who would be generals.”

As a kind of pastoral anthropology, Taggart’s Pastorelles is always digging around, plunging into the farmscape. The serial poem “Not Egypt” accomplishes this adroitly, starting from inside Taggart’s home: “Turned sideways / window turns into pillars / shadow pillars and shadow porches / deep red valley in a valley way down in Egypt land” (13). Our eye moves sideways, out the window, onto the porch and down into a valley. The archaic syntax of “way down in Egypt land” suggests some mythic subject, or perhaps a Christian spiritual, especially as the subsequent lines are “shadows and habitation / of the dead.” Yet Taggart is simply observing the history of his place. Egypt turns out to be an unincorporated town in Pennsylvania, one of the oldest settlements in the state, and a crucial cement-producing area (Egypt cement built the New York City subway). Our readerly associations enter the poem as an extension of that anthropological instinct, neither right nor wrong, just activated. As the poem moves on through its five sections, Taggart uses specific features of the landscape — a stone wall, a shortcut road in the woods, redbud bushes, a steel plow — to trace the history of its uses. He discovers “dusk and dark along the road past Ramp’s stone house”; “tool and tools / to move through depths of a valley”; “wind / exhilaration of the fragrance of the flowers / by starlight”; and “the sweet cherry orchard / no longer there / not one tree of the orchard left to shake.” Signs of human inhabitation blend with natural processes, become natural processes, all “testaments of the dead / testaments of the unwrapped dead” (13).

One of the considerable pleasures of all this plumbing of the scene is the music by which it sings. Taggart ends this lovely poem with “a labor of ecstasy / considerable labor of ecstasy” (17). Much like Geoffrey G. O’Brien, John Taggart is interested in identifying writing as a crucial labor. A rural subject, the tracery of people at work, this pastoral digging adduces to a version of proletarian literature William Empson might recognize, however much admire. The rural limit produces a particular kind of beauty closely observed. For the sincere man is one with nature. Taggart’s locus amenis is his own backyard, which also happens to be an American wilderness successively settled for its garden potential:

from the creek through another woods under another road

through another woods to the creek again


made by a number of men with their tools

by their labor

which is my labor also (“Not Egypt,” 17)


Poems like “Work,” “In the Kitchen,” “Rhythm and Blues Singer,” or “Henry David Thoreau/Sonny Rollins” explore the poetic labor as it analogously inhabits various portraits of people “woodshedding.” That each might be seen to have made a “sincere account” of their work seems to be Taggart’s ethical and economic concern, not to mention his American literary claim. Here is Zukofsky’s “objective”: “In sincerity shapes appear concomitants of word combinations, precursors of (if there is continuance) completed sound or structure, melody or form. Writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking of things as they exist.”[11] Taggart’s ledger exhumes cultural figures, lost voices, private collections; we are instructed in the histories of our gardens. Good thermodynamics, labor is preserved in a vivid range of site maps. Correspondence is a question of local character, places to be sure, but also people and the objects that they make. Indeed, one of the pleasing discoveries of Pastorelles is the correspondence between the photographs on the cover — taken by his wife, Jennifer — and the poems in the book. Beautifully and spaciously produced by Flood Editions, there is a winking aboutness to this text that extends materially across sympathetic objects and landscapes. Yet we should not be surprised by this, as one of Taggart’s early projects, editing the seminal ’60s journal Maps, projected this materialist poetics from the outset.[12]

As I’ve said, much of the labor of Taggart’s poetry, in Pastorelles and throughout his work, can be found in his music: signature word and phrase repetitions, clausal fusions that mutate syntax, running infinitive verb structures, all in shades of seriality that variously stretch repetition over time. Energetically speaking, there’s something preserved in the circular music of his poems; phrases, lines of thought, turn and return, working out the logos by the melos:

Full/open red daylily

reminder that the object is a song

for which the troubadours commended themselves to a life between

risk of holding back

risk of not holding back and the death of desire

 which is the death of song

 which is the death of the troubadour (“Pastorelle 2,” 3)


One hears the lines in one’s head, anticipates them, discovers them, amplifies them through the nuance of repetition. The readerly horizon is intensely recursive, a lyric work that incrementally awakens our senses “concerning the lily its full/open throat open for a day” (“Pastorelle 2”). Yet it is also a self-interrogation, or the interrogation of the song. The poem interrogates the lyric function of the troubadour by singing. Taggart’s Objectivist attention seeks to accurately notate the body proper, but the body moves day to day:


 the problem is not turning

 into a rock

 the problem is a problem of how

 far how far can I throw myself and how far can I

 throw myself again (“Pastorelle 7,” 43)


Restlessly recasting the object of attention, the poem, the rock, Taggart’s line keeps freezing or spilling “the problem” of attention: “the problem is a problem of how” “far how far can I throw.” The poem turns back on itself, just as the question of the next poem turns back on the author. It is the problem of a lifetime, and the project of books. Listen, for instance, to its endurance in yet another project, another poem, six years prior: “the subject was roses the problem is memory … the problem is memory the problem a problema / the problem a problema a problem to find / a problem to find the unknown.”[13] When the Saints is an elegy for his friend, the artist Bradford Graves, but it is also the question of poesis itself experienced as a daily phenomenon: “how far can I throw myself and how far can I / throw myself again.” In a 2001 interview with Brad Hass, Taggart notes this as a kind of improvisational making/unmaking: “I see it [the poem] as addressing form and working with form as a grid. The task is to get it set up; then, once you’re in it to not so much get out of it but as you’re going along to go beyond it, to go off the grid.”[14]

Beyond any gestural pipings, Taggart’s looping repetitions are a very real working out of musicological properties, in particular the cantus firmus tradition that spans from Gregorian chant to contemporary Minimalism. Employing a fixed melody or theme over which variations turn and return, Taggart has been exploring this mode since at least Dodeka[15] in 1979. In this, and the subsequent period, cantus firmus manifested in a variety of extended forms, more or less uniform in line and syllable count. Poems such as “Peace on Earth” and “The Rothko Chapel Poem” had a sustained architecture that induced a powerful choral effect.[16] In Pastorelles, Taggart’s activity is different. Often varying short and long lines, lines which isolate the repeated word or phrase, or doubling words line to line or within lines, Taggart enacts a curious echo that is more intimate and condensed:

Gradually how gradually

 one comes to understand the poets

 as gradually as

 the compulsion of one’s own compulsion the compulsion to repeat

(“The Compulsion to Repeat,” 62)


Yet the sound is more contrapuntal swing than Gertrude Stein insistence. Here it is the compulsion to repeat that discovers something. Music, as such, is a generator of the intertextual field. Taggart’s got a brilliant ear which increasingly syncopates the line and opens the page toward sources as various as African American spirituals, Sonny Rollins sax solos, country music, Sainte Colombe viola, the minimalist lyrics of William Bronk, or Lorine Niedecker, Charles Wesley’s Methodist hymns, Steve Reich’s polyrhythms, Robert Quine’s guitar leads, and the visual music of the painter R. B. Kitaj. Taggart chooses his subjects carefully; or rather the musical properties they explore are particular cadences, rhythms of thought, as much as sources of inspiration. And they continue to move.

In the poem “5/On the Line” we see Taggart explicitly metapoetical. It’s a deft and witty literalizing of the poem’s activity, as it is five separate poems on the subject of the line, often with five-line stanzas, or patterns of five words. Here we find Taggart doing what seems signal of this later period: the accretive serial poem. By using the lyric to interrogate the history of the lyric we get a repeating lyric that metonymically extends the sonic architecture of the lyric, but in an irregular manner. Extension is the key, how far can the line “throw?” As the poet Rochelle Ratner observed long ago, “The deeper I get into reading Taggart, the more I come to understand that it’s not so much music his work is involved with but variations.”[17] One only has to reread a poem like the thirty-five page “The Rothko Chapel Poem” to see how long the line can blow. Yet here the densified figuration from “5/On the Line” offers:

Said to have begun in the middle


 middle of the line mulberries with mulberries and their weight

 white and black and red

 weighing down the branch not a word in the line (70)


Tracing the line in medias res, Taggart sources through ancient Greece, but immediately shifts the context to mulberries, the Pennsylvania local, a color and a weight that “writes” the page by season, “… not a word in the line.” This natural language makes sense, “because the line = The branch / mulberries / their weight what holds the line in place as a branch extending in space.” Taggart’s tracing of the poetic line to visible nature, the literal bow of the tree, provides the instruction, and suggests the present material is always the source of our intelligence. Good Objectivism, we may trace the line forward historically, but it is always written on the present case, informs it as a material density of thing seen by attention. Yet the poem offers a bridge as well. Pastorelles refracts pastourelles, Old French lyric forms of the twelfth century expressive of rural character. Time crosses the limb in an act of lyric attention. An ongoingness, the next poem in the series offers a more mythic necessity to the scene: “The best one of the best lines / “Pan Sleeps” // which explains everything which explains why the drought” (71). We return to the drought in the poem “Thales the Melisian,” and to the arcadian source of the pastoral imagination. We also reloop to the beginning of the book. Are we to believe our environmental crises are due to a lack of song? Should we try the “problema” again? Repetition compels us to think on it. Reading Taggart’s variable line affords an opportunity. And something happens, the music is both an invitation and a discovery. Nature is imperiled in this query of the line, and it produces a line of poetry; it is a line of descent and a line of witness, something divined and something literally seen:

which explains everything which explains why the drought

 goes on

 year after year the ground in the woods

 cracked gravel and powder

 where the grasses ferns and grasses where the trout lilies used to be

 roots of the trees

 great length of the roots of the trees exposed

 across the path stepped on run over by the tractor (“5/On the Line,” 71)


Thirty-seven of fifty-three poems in Pastorelles are serial. Their “limitless set of relations,” to quote theorist Joseph Conte, “take shape from the diverse ways in which items come together undetermined by external necessity.”[18] It is perhaps true that the whole book is a series, or a continuation of the serial project initiated by Loop. The non-“Pastorelle” poems in the volume develop cases, sites, and correspondences, with “Pastorelles 1–15” operating as a kind of interstitial riff or refrain. Essentially open, improvisational, and aleatory in their placement in the larger structure of the book, they gain momentum from their sonically accretive manner. Yet an examination of the overarching forms reveals an intense sense of stanzaic correspondence, and a preponderance of subtle number games played into a kind of physical texture. Taggart’s repetitions are intensive — acting within poems — and extensive — acting across poems, and even books. In Pastorelles, recurring forms of the series (three to seven poems each) stretch our sense of increment; one hears oneself hearing this poem, the last poem. Themes and images as well as phrases leap across the book, and the book as a sustained activity is both radically destabilized and enlarged. Repeating gestures of sound and ideolect thus conserve their energies like living systems, books. Indeed, the organic metaphor is apt despite Taggart’s resistance to metaphor. For indeed, it is not a metaphor at all but a felt property of the poem. There is something so deeply musical about his poetry that he reverses mimetic sensibilities; we see, we have insight by the drone of the poem. It’s very literally a spiritual hymn and a devotional activity, a faith in the lyric tradition that is not sentimental but performed. As he says in “Rhythm and Blues Singer,” “words entangle us / words in letters of the alphabet the letters in written words” and “rhythm = the backbeat of all biological pleasures / blues = bad luck and trouble / to sing is to be untied” (48).

Importantly, this singing is also an attention to natural processes, sites of disclosure. I see the echo of images on the cover of Pastorelles and the physical field of the poems to which they correspond. It is tempting to locate these locations to a more theoretical “opening of the field” via Duncan’s famous formulation.[19] And we wouldn’t be wrong for there is a dual permission in Taggart’s book: to return to and dwell within specific meaningful places in the natural world, and to thematically rewire the coordinates of western environmental history. This is the good instruction of Taggart’s pastoralism. And if his music allows this physical experience so too do his built up subjects disclose a particular evolution of poetry. Pastorelles is rife with premonitions of mortality, both in a poet’s life and in the turning of the seasons. This quality imbues the book with a sustained elegiac tonality, and situates, at first glance, its pastoral gestures in an arcadian past. Yet the knowledge we might yield from such a backward glance comes up against the more immediate permission of the present:

In such an evening such as this evening

 this May evening the lengthening light of this May evening

 let us walk in the woodland garden

 a grove or green place

 and in this place let us take up your question

 (“A Grove or Green Place,” 44)


In successively numbered sections of “such evenings” it is the flowers, trees, and shrubs of the poet’s immediate garden that offer “the still bright clarity of the cardinals” (45). Nature has a course for us if we should care to study it; and “in such an evening we are taking up your questions /question of what we are.” Poetry-as-thinking resides in the materially utopic present of “green and not-green parts of this green place.”

Yet those images, those bridges and daylilies imply a journey of the garden, and to this we owe some debt to Leo Marx’s machine. Shot through with technology, we manage our being by being on a journey. In this regard that time-worn aspect of the pastoral — excursus — fuses the city and the country. Throughout Pastorelles John Taggart seems to be on a ramble, driving, walking, taking in the scene. Modernity’s recasting of the tradition provides a convenient open road through an informational field: “I’m in the dark on a long long long lonesome road / a roadless road and not a preference” (“Aluminum Road” 7). Something of an initial outing, we start Pastorelles at the “Carlisle Indian Industrial School.” On and through the book we walk through various glades and seasons, we drive the “Aluminum Road” and visit a “Car Museum” only to end up, in the last poem, “Plinth,”


 cannot be glued cannot be pinned

 what can be done = the parts abutted

 bolting them

 to the rough foundation stones from the old schoolhouse (104)


Taggart reconstructs the local scene by minute attention; a new, presumably more compassionate and ecologically nuanced history might emerge from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It will be rebolted, “the plinth resting on / bolted to those stones.” There is something urgent in the lament; it calls for a new foundation. How shall we build it, “what can be done?”… “that music may enter as through a welcoming portal may enter this // air / among these pines.” It turns out all that lyric acuity might have an ethical application. In the carefully organized structure of the book we have an apt demonstration of an in situ thinking song. It is suggestively symbolic of where we might be headed.

I want to end my discussion of Taggart’s Pastorelles by noting a distinct formal feature that offers some last evidence to the utility of the pastoral tradition. Some of the titles of the poems in the volume — and in the subsequent volume, There Are Birds (from which I take the title of this essay, “Surroundings answer questions”), most significantly the sixty-two-page “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” — employ a backslash to curious effect.[20] Poems such as “Henry David Thoreau/Sonny Rollins” seem to juxtapose characters, effect a study in character. Other poems, such as “Thales the Milesian/In a Time of Drought” and “Parmenides/Fragments 3 and 15A,” evoke a simultaneity of subject across time and space. Or its a subject as idea or person, and a process operating on that subject across time and space. At other moments it is contrast, or a kind of severing or caesura, or even a line break, “because the line = the branch / mulberries” (“5/On the Line”). Dialogically suspended, Taggart manages, by way of the backslash, to triangulate things, people, and ideas into the third term of the poem; yet it is not a synthesis, not a condensation or summary connection. He lets the juxtaposition speak as the materials would present themselves, a kind of parataxical voice. This omnidirectional quality of dialogue — of the poet in dialogue with avatars and the disparate materials of his culture — prefigures that particular dialogic tension between the city dweller and the shepherd, or rather the contradictions between them. Caught singing between the future and the past, between an exhausted tradition and the world it would still attempt sincerely to embody, we would do well to include all the terms in our present investigation. John Taggart’s Pastorelles eloquently gives us the trace to find our way:

Cut of the slash

 which cuts

 which cuts and which connects


 of the cut of

 time itself

 which leaves a blue mark

 black and blue mark

 which can be read as a kind of bridge

 connecting black and blue and

 the abstract truth of

 time itself. (“Henry David Thoreau/Sonny Rollins,” 23)




1. William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935), 3.

2. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (London, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964). Class idyll, or Manifest Destiny, we seek a magnification in the pastoral. Marx’s genius is in showing that, despite this commonplace, the train, or technology largely figured, is exceptional in America. 

3. This is Charles Olson’s argument as well in Call Me Ishmael (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997): “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America man, from Folsom Cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy” (3).

4. Charles Altieri, Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 5.

5. Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Green and Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

6. John Taggart, Pastorelles (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2004).

7. O’Brien, The Guns and Flag Project (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

8. Raymond Williams, The Country and The City (London, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975).

9. O’Brien, Metropole (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

10. Taggart, Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1994), 5.

11. Louis Zukofsky, Prepositions: The Collected Critical Essays (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 13.

12. Taggart’s papers are housed at the University of California, San Diego. See the Online Archive of California; also of note is the Fales Library and Special Collections at NYU. The John Taggart Archive is a collection of correspondence Taggart received as editor of Maps from 1970 to 1974. Collection highlights include correspondence from Carol Bergé, Paul Blackburn, Hayden Carruth, Robert Creeley, Guy Davenport, Gary Snyder, and Louis Zukofsky.

13. Taggart, When the Saints (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, 1999), 2.

14. Taggart, interview with Brad N. Hass, Flashpoint, 2002.

15. Taggart, Dodeka (New York: Membrane Press, 1979).

16. Taggart, Peace on Earth (Berkeley: Turtle Island Foundation, 1981); Loop (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon, 1987).

17. Rochelle Ratner, “The Poet as Composer,” Paper Air, 1979. See also Karl Young’s essay at

18. Joseph Conte, Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 15.

19. Robert Duncan, The Opening of the Field (New York: New Directions, 1973). See in particular “Often I Am Permitted to Return.”

A note on the visual poetry of Whalen, Grenier, and Lazer

Left to right: image courtesy of Wesleyan University Press, from 'The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen,' edited by Michael Rothenberg, 2007; image courtesy of Bob Grenier; image courtesy of Hank Lazer.

From the beginning of my writing, I have been concerned with (floored by) the fact of a word, or a letter, as a thing, a physical, elemental, thing — and the act of contemplating such a thing. In the late ’60s, I noticed the poems of Aram Saroyan — one word, say, “crickets” — printed repeatedly in a single column, in Courier type, down the page. My first works were less poems or writing per se about something than memorials to the fact of words, that they appear and seem to signify. Three poets who have been over many decades important to me have developed this material aspect of writing considerably: Philip Whalen in his doodle poems, Robert Grenier in his poem scrawls, and Hank Lazer with his shape poems.

Whalen studied traditional calligraphy with Lloyd Reynolds at Reed College. Accomplished with specially nibbed fountain pens, and written in traditional alphabet styles, such calligraphy is an art form itself, originating in the Middle Ages, for hand-copying sacred texts. Whalen used the pens and the alphabet styles, but was never serious about fully developing his hand — though he did spend many hours, over years, in repetitive practice. An inveterate doodler, he couldn’t help himself from fooling around with pen and ink and paper. Many of his printed poems are doodles of the sort someone might make when talking on the phone or waiting in a doctor’s office, full of curlicues, little drawings, various sizes and styles of lettering. Most of this is lost in the printing, although almost all his books make an attempt to indicate the feeling of the actual notebook page with use of capitals, various sizes and styles of type, etc. Several of his books reproduce pages in facsimile, and there are many such pages in his Collected Poems.[1] Whalen’s original notebooks are available for viewing at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and Brain Unger is doing a scholarly edition of some of the notebooks.

From 'The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen,' edited by Michael Rothenberg, 2007.

Robert Grenier has long been exploring the minimalist poem. Since the 1970s, he’s been straying, wandering, or maybe zig-zagging away from the notion of a poem printed on a page secured in a book. He’s made giant poetry posters with clusters of tiny poems printed here and there on them (one I have is tiny white typed words on black paper), and his famous “Sentences” is an elegant box of cards with little poems of a few words, or even one word, or part of a word on each card (“Sentences” is now also available online). In the late 1980s, he began to make what look like poem scrawls. Consisting generally of actual words (though they are often hard to make out), the works — which are shown in galleries — are quite beautiful. They are made with various colored fine-point pens (green, blue, red, black), not, as with Whalen, with calligraphy equipment in decorative alphabets. Precise thin lines bend, spread, and crisscross on large-format paper, building up a dense forest of lines in pleasing, if seemingly casual, though gorgeous, array, that only eventually resolves into words when you look at them for a while. Sample texts:



I saw it
where is it
(or it might read I saw/ where/it/ is it)

Deliberate, lovely, if simple or even simple-minded phrases, unlike Whalen’s offhand unintentional words (“B, a beard. … B. is just because … Don’t mention the Arizona Biltmore …”)

Image courtesy of Bob Grenier.

Hank Lazer’s shape poems are, again, something completely different. The words are handwritten in notebooks, one poem to a page, in series. The notebook is the aesthetic unit here, as, perhaps, with Whalen, though Whalen’s notebooks are what he referred to as “goofing,” while Lazer’s are quite deliberately in series. (Grenier’s scrawls are complete standalone poems). The handwriting of Lazer’s shape poems is not particularly elegant, as in Whalen, nor does it emphasize, as in Grenier, the emotional and visual primacy of letter and word. Using ordinary ballpoint pen (note that in later notebooks Lazer too uses a fine point instrument), Lazer’s hand isn’t particularly distinguished one way or the other. Just words written in an ordinary way, the writing somewhat chunky, not flowing. Their distinction comes in the shapes they trace on the page — spirals, squares, circles, various complex irregular forms. The twenty or so notebooks I am aware of begin with fairly ordinary stanzaic shapes on the page and evolve as they go into these more elaborate shapes, each page unique. Whereas Whalen’s word-content is rather haphazard and free-associational, and Grenier’s is precise, imagistic, or emphasizing grammar and syntax, Lazer’s words are discursive and poetic. In the course of the twenty notebooks he is reading through Heidegger’s Being and Time, and, later, several works by Emmanuel Levinas, and the words in the poems play off and dart in and out of citations from these works. The tone is philosophical and ruminative, a record, from inside language, of a person’s thinking, about words, in words, in and about time, space, life, death — not thinking’s products but thinking itself as process. The poems are improvisational and immediate — the form allows for no revision. In fact improvisation — its delightful freedom, playfulness, even joy — is characteristic of all three of these poets’ visual work.[2]

Image courtesy of Hank Lazer.

What is interesting and sustaining for me about the possibility of writing is that one could live in the intimate midst of words as such — as thinking in a shape, feeling, and form — as being in the world that’s illuminated through human mind and language, simply dwelling there with all the wonder and serenity that that dwelling brings. This seems to me to be the case with any writing that I find truly worthwhile, and the more you appreciate this the clearer it is that its pleasures come fullest at the level of the word in hand and eye and mind — as you find in these works.

1. Philip Whalen, The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, ed. Michael Rothenberg (Lebanon, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2007).

2. The most accessible example of Lazer’s shape poems is found in his N18 (Complete), Singing Horse, 2012. They can be found online in Talisman Issue #42 and Plume Issue #34

Provenance report

William Carlos Williams’s 1942 reading for the NCTE

The NCTE's Contemporary Poets Series edition of William Carlos Williams reading his poetry (left), and the record's producer, Walter C. Garwick, as a young man, in 1905 (right).

The earliest known recording of William Carlos Williams reading his work was created on January 9, 1942, as part of a collaboration with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and Columbia University Press. The recording is currently available at PennSound,  the largest collection of poetry recordings on the web, which is based at the University of Pennsylvania and directed by Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein. Beyond a limited amount of metadata, not much is known about the context of this recording. What was the NCTE’s intent for making the recording — preservation, access, or something else? Who was its intended audience? What kind of recording device was used to make it? Where, exactly, did the recording take place? Who recorded Williams reading?

With the guidance of Al Filreis, I recently learned more about the recording’s provenance by obtaining some of Williams’s correspondence with Columbia and the NCTE from Yale’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library. We learned that the NCTE recording of Williams is part of its Contemporary Poetry Series collection of recordings and was intended for pedagogical use. These recordings were meant to be distributed to “students, and other lovers of literature,”[1] so that listeners would have the opportunity to glean additional meaning by hearing the authors of the poems perform them. The pedagogical significance of the Contemporary Poetry Series is that it marks one of the earliest cases of the use of technology and poetics pedagogy: the concept that a phonotext provides unique insight into a poem. The Contemporary Poetry Series anticipates the pedagogical project of PennSound.

On April 19, 1940, William Cabell Greet, a lexicologist and professor of English at Columbia’s Barnard College, wrote to Williams to invite the poet to lunch with him and two of his colleagues, Dr. George Hibbitt and Dr. Henry Wells. The letter suggests that they have lunch at the Columbia Faculty Club and, at some point that day, record Williams reading his poetry.[2] We don’t have further correspondence on the topic, but we do know that the recording actually took place about a year and nine months later, on January 9, 1942.

Ten months after the recording was made, on November 14, 1942, Williams was sent a letter by W. Wilbur Hatfield, the then-secretary-treasurer of the National Council of Teachers of English.[3] Hatfield thanks Williams for taking the time to make the recording and reveals some of the intent when he declares, “We are glad to have been instrumental in the preservation of the reading, and we think schools will be glad to have them now.”[4] It seems that the NCTE’s intention for the recording was twofold: preservation and access. The NCTE wanted the recordings preserved for posterity — but a primary intent was also to distribute them for pedagogical purposes and to allow access to the recordings, the same ethos the PennSound project is built upon.

Hatfield then moves on to the main purpose of this letter, which is to inform Williams that distribution of the record, and thus his royalty payments, will be delayed due to a change in distributor. Here we learn that the NCTE will distribute the record through Walter C. (Cleveland) Garwick of Rye, New York. This turns out to be a highly significant fact, as it links the Williams recording to a series of poetry recordings edited by Greet and Hibbitt and produced by Garwick, the Contemporary Poets Series.

W. Cabell Greet and the Contemporary Poets Series

Eleven years before Greet would record Williams, an event occurred that would serve as the inspiration to create the Contemporary Poets Series. In January 1931, Vachel Lindsay approached Greet and asked him to record his work. Lindsay believed that poetry exists as a sounded entity before it is later written down, a belief that seems to be shared by Greet. In fact, one report claims that the earliest addition of a record Lindsay and Greet would make together contained the text, “During his life-time Vachel Lindsay was properly disdainful of printed poetry except as a libretto to be followed while hearing sounded poetry.” Given his views on the precedence of poetry’s sonic properties over its textual manifestation, Lindsay felt a sense of urgency[5] to use the technology of the time to capture and preserve the sound of his poetry in records. Lindsay approached several commercial record labels before coming to Greet and was rebuffed by each. Greet had in his possession an Amplion disc (record) maker,[6] which he used to make recordings of American speech and dialects of the time. The device could cut records from aluminum platters and was not the highest quality, even by standards of the time. Nonetheless, Greet and Lindsay worked together, sponsored by the Columbia University Library and Columbia University Council for Research in the Humanities, to record thirty-eight records, three hours in total, comprising nearly all of Lindsay’s poetry. Lindsay would die less than one year later. These recordings would later be released as part of the Contemporary Poets Series, but the interaction between Greet and Lindsay is the most critical aspect to note. Lindsay’s views on poems as sounded entities influenced the entire ethos of the Contemporary Poets Series: the series came to be characterized by a phonotextual emphasis — that poems are best studied with recordings alongside their respective texts. As such, the series lays the groundwork for the field that would become phonotextuality by considering the interplay between the sonic and textual properties of a poem.

Around 1934, Greet and Hibbitt partnered with the National Council of Teachers of English, an organization devoted to “improving the teaching and learning of English and the language arts at all levels of education,” to establish the Contemporary Poets Series. Greet’s founding of the Contemporary Poets Series made the NCTE a logical partner. Greet framed his announcement of the creation of the series with this sentiment: “The lack of phonograph records of men of letters has been a source of regret to many teachers, students, and other lovers of literature.” The group had national reach and the resources to help Greet distribute the records. Indeed, Greet’s stated intention, paired with Hatfield’s later letter to Williams in which Hatfield looks forward to the distribution of the Williams recordings to schools, demonstrate that the series was founded for pedagogical purposes. It would continue to function as such for at least a decade.

The Contemporary Poets Series was housed at Greet and Hibbitt’s Columbia lab into the 1940s, the first release in the series being a subset of the Vachel Lindsay recordings. Greet published calls for suggestions of poets to include in the series in scholarly journals of the time, including American Speech (a cosponsor of the series),[7] The Quarterly Journal of Speech,[8] and The Elementary English Review,[9] published by NCTE. The series would come to include a wide range of poets, specifically Lindsay, Williams, Gertude Stein, W. H. Auden, Archibald MacLeish, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Robert P. Tristram Coffin, E. E. Cummings, Mark Van Doren, John Peale Bishop, Leonie Adams, Marianne Moore, Stephen Vincent Benet, William Rose Benet, Conrad Aiken, Aldous Huxley, John Gould Fletcher, Alfred Kreymborg, Carl Sandburg, and Allen Tate.[10]

Addressing teachers in his solicitations, Greet asks questions like: “What [do] poems lose most by being printed?”[11] and “What poems would be most useful in emphasizing for students that all poetry, not only the so-called lyric, exists first as song, in aural terms, before it is reduced to print?”[12] The assumption Greet makes here is that the transference of a poem from a kinetic, sounded entity to a textual manifestation is a reductive, privative process. In this he echoes Pound and foreshadows Olson in thinking of poetry written in vers libre as being as musical or more so than lyric.

Walter C. Garwick

The Walter C. Garwick mentioned in Hatfield’s note to Williams is a significant figure of the time: he worked as a producer and audio consultant for many of Greet’s recordings, and also manufactured and sold one of the first portable recording devices, a machine he sold to John A. Lomax for use in creating field recordings. While Greet had originally secured Erpi Picture Consultants Inc., a producer of educational films, to handle the production of the series, he eventually came to work with Garwick as his engineer and, later, his producer/distributor. In the November 1941 agenda of the NCTE Board of Directors meeting, Greet refers to Garwick as the NCTE’s “technical expert”[13] vis-à-vis recording poets. The title here is likely intended to cover the wide range of Garwick’s work on the project, from operating the recording equipment through handling distribution of the records. During the time of the early recordings, Garwick worked for Fairchild, a company that built audio-recording equipment and sold a competitor to the Amplion record maker used by Greet and Hibbitt. He also seems to have served as a recording engineer at Columbia, where he worked with Greet making recordings. This is perhaps where they initially met.

In 1933, in correspondence with the famous American folklorist and ethnographer John A. Lomax, Garwick writes that he is leaving Fairchild and starting a company that would manufacture a record maker that would be the lightest/most portable of its time at under a hundred pounds (the Fairchild model weighed about 300 pounds). The device could cut aluminum and celluloid records and would be battery powered, marking it a significant technological innovation. Some of the other field recording devices of the time required being hitched to a truck to be moved and were powered by removing the wheel of the truck and running a drive belt from the axle to the recorder. In correspondence with Lomax, Garwick works to sell him the device, which the Library of Congress would eventually purchase for Lomax, for about $500, or around $8,500 in today’s dollars, and Garwick notes his affiliation with Greet. Garwick’s mention of his relationship with Greet likely refers to their working together to record Lindsay two years earlier, along with their pursuit of recording American dialects and speech. In fact, Hatfield suggests in his letter to Williams that Garwick was the engineer who recorded Williams. It is unclear what device Greet was using in 1942 when Williams came in to be recorded, but it seems likely that it was the same Amplion used to record Lindsay.

In researching Garwick, I had the pleasure of interviewing his great-granddaughter Christine Whittaker, who helped develop a fuller picture of Garwick than I was able to find anywhere else, both through her familial knowledge of her great-grandfather and from research she conducted on him in the Lomax archive at the Library of Congress. She spoke with pride of Garwick’s breadth of accomplishments, especially given his modest background and eighth-grade education. He went on to work as an audio engineer for Fairchild and as a recording engineer for Columbia, where he created the lightest field-recording device of his day and sold it as part of his own company. He traveled the country (over 30,000 miles, he notes to Lomax in a letter) recording samples of Americana in the field — a pursuit that William Carlos Williams would have lauded, given his interest in the American idiom. While there appears to be no extant model of Garwick’s field-recording device, his family is proud that his legacy lives on through his recordings and preserved correspondence with Lomax at the Library of Congress. Christine was kind enough to provide me with this picture of Walter C. Garwick playing his father’s violin, taken in 1905 (see above; image used courtesy of Christine Whittaker and family).

Garwick’s involvement with the Contemporary Poets Series is significant because he serves to create a relation between early sound recordings as ethnographic research, specifically Lomax’s field recordings and Greet’s recordings of American dialects, and as a lens to better elucidate poetry. By juxtaposing ethnography with poetry, Garwick’s involvement demonstrates poetry as a living, social, corporeal entity, as perpetually representative of the American zeitgeist. Just as Lomax pursued the recording of cowboy songs and African American spirituals because they would be reduced by representation on the printed page alone, so too did Greet apply this ethos to poetry, where he served as a pioneer of phonotextual studies.

Significance of The Contemporary Poets Series

The NCTE’s Contemporary Poets Series marks the first known attempt to create a collection of recorded poetry for pedagogical purposes. In doing so, it represents a kind of proto-PennSound. The underlying belief that teachers and students would change their understanding of poems by hearing them as sounded structures foreshadows a key impetus for Al Filreis and Charles Bernstein’s founding PennSound about seventy years later. In a PennSound podcast about the project’s founding, Al Filreis asserts that pedagogical interests were central to his and Bernstein’s decision to create PennSound. We hear in Filreis’s remarks echoes of W. Cabell Greet, in the early 1930s, explaining the intentions of the Contemporary Poets Series. For example, when Greet solicits recommendations for poets to record as part of the series, he frames the call for ideas with this question: “What poems would be most useful in emphasizing for students that all poetry, not only the so-called lyric, exists first as song, in aural terms, before it is reduced to print?” While the premise that all poetry exists first as song can be debated, the underlying sentiment that sound can help to establish a connection between student and poem is at the heart of the series’ pedagogical ethos. In addition, Greet’s statement sets forth the idea that a poem exists in multiplicity: as a sounded structure in addition to a textual construct. Leaving aside whether the textual representation of a poem is reductive, the intent of illustrating for students that poetry does indeed also exist off the printed page, as an aural, performative entity, is a principle shared between the Contemporary Poets Series and PennSound.

Another similarity between the projects is the creation of two different subseries of poetry: contemporary and historical. Just as PennSound contains a ‘classics’ section, featuring readings of classic poetry (Swift, Pope, Dryden, etc.) by scholars of the works, Greet created a Historical Poets Series alongside the Contemporary Poets Series. At the same time that he issues a call for recommendations for contemporary poets to record, Greet also asks: “What works of and other past poets writers would it be well to have recorded by present-day scholars as a help in studying and teaching literature? Such as, for example, poems of Burns, Chaucer, and Shakespeare.”[14] (The PennSound Classics archive in fact contains readings of both Chaucer and Shakespeare.)

In addition to its pedagogical resonance with PennSound, the Contemporary Poets Series stands as an important moment in the development of ethnographic approaches to the American poetry archive: the series was recorded by an ethnographer whose primary scholarship centered on the American dialect. The twofold use of the machine for recording samples of the American dialect and for recording poets should not be viewed as happenstance. The two projects complement each other and demonstrate that poetry is a living entity, woven into the cultural fabric of a society. Just as language and its changes reflect social relations and temporal shifts, so too does the poetry of the time. Greet’s inclusion of poetry in his recording agenda affirms this fact and reframes how we approach these recordings. Understanding the historical context of their creation and situating their intent between pedagogy and ethnography, both presentational and representational, allows for new close listenings of the Williams recording and others in the series. For example, the Williams recordings framed as ethnography, specifically lexicology, foreground Williams’s belief that the American idiom is the foundation upon which American poetry, and indeed American life, is built. When we hear Williams read “To Elsie” in this context, the poem becomes a negotiation of a new America based on who gets to contribute toward the evolution of the American idiom.

Through its pedagogical intent and phonotextual emphasis, the Contemporary Poets Series prefigures PennSound. But the projects share a greater relation: several of the recordings made by Greet have found their way into PennSound. In addition to the Williams recording, PennSound offers some of the recordings of Vachel Lindsay that inspired the creation of The Contemporary Poets Series; we are also researching whether the Gertrude Stein recordings in PennSound were those of Stein made by Greet, and we are searching for other recordings from the series. Our intent is to create a PennSound page dedicated to the Contemporary Poets Series, which we hope will further contextualize recordings as we bring them together in digital form for the first time.

The correspondence between Williams and the NCTE reveals a hope the series founders had that recordings of Williams and others would lead to preservation and access. The fact that these recordings are making their way to PennSound, which has the technological advantage of being able to accomplish both of these goals on a much larger scale, affirms and extends Greet’s vision. “Teachers and students and lovers of literature” anywhere in the world can now hear Williams and Lindsay reading their work from Greet and Hibbit’s Columbia recording studio and consider the poems as sounded structures, and as a technological bridge between kindred projects.

The author would like to thank everyone who provided insight, counsel, and assistance with this essay, especially Steve Green, Christine Whittaker, Todd Harvey, Mary Ellen Budney, Julia Bloch, and Al Filreis



1. Cabell Greet, “Records of Poets,” American Speech 9, no. 4 (December 1934): 312–13. Hereafter cited as RoP.

2. Columbia University to Williams, 19 April 1940, box 4, container 132, William Carlos Williams General Correspondence, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

3. National Council of Teachers of English to Williams, 14 November 1942, box 16, container 495, William Carlos Williams General Correspondence, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

4. Ibid.

5. This sense of urgency is suggested by Greet’s claims that Lindsay points out a “need for action” (RoP) vis-à-vis beginning to record poets reading their work, and also that Lindsay “insisting upon the importance of his own reading of his poetry, searched in vain for a commercial company to make the records.”

6. John A. Lomax, in a letter to the chief of music for the Library of Congress, notes that Greet uses the Amplion recorder. Lomax is, at the time, getting price quotes for a field recorder of his own. The possible options are the Amplion model and the Fairchild Co. model. Lomax to C. Engel, May 2, 1933, Lomax Correspondence, Library of Congress.

7. RoP.

8. Cabell Greet, “The Lindsay Records,” The Elementary English Review 9.5 (May 1932): 122, 128. Hereafter cited as LR.

9. Cabell Greet, “Records of Poets,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 21.2 (1935): 296–96. Hereafter cited as QJS-RoP.

10. A partial listing of records is listed in WorldCat. Others are noted in The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten, ed. Edward Burns (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 422n2.

11. QJS-RoP, 295.

12. RoP, 312.

13. NCTE Board of Directors meeting agenda, 20 November 1941, record series 15/70/2, box 1, University of Illinois Archives.

14. RoP, 312.