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This poem is a song an act a work of love

Taggart and repetition

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

Reading the poetry of John Taggart involves the pleasures of repetition, as well as the mysteries and agitations of repeated presences: of language, of ideas, of sound forms, of song. To open a book of Taggart’s poetry is to invite a round of singing and a round of thinking about what the poem does when it is sounded out, what elements of thought it welcomes in. A retrospective consideration of his work must necessarily involve the recognition that repetition is what rings the changes in the poems and what signals those changes themselves that the poems enable. Repetition can be used as a compass to guide you through Taggart’s poetry; it’s a tool, an orienting device. But it also works as a major theme in the poetry; as such, more than a tool, it’s a current, a form of fluidity and a generator of sustaining power for the work itself, figuring the musical practices that Taggart works and reworks in his poetry.

Repetition embraces compulsion as much as it enacts transformation. Where it is a technique it can also be a symptom — symptomatic of a pathology or indicative of an effort to surpass the compulsion to repeat, a sign or token to make something new. (Symptom from syn, together, and piptein, to fall.) In one of his essays on analytical technique, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” Freud considers the relationship between repetition and the “motive for remembering,” suggesting that as these forces are transferred, during analysis, they become “harmless, and indeed useful,” by giving them the right to be asserted “in a definite field.” He calls this field a “playground,” in which the compulsion to repeat is “allowed to expand in almost complete freedom and in which it is expected to display to us everything … that is hidden in the … mind.”[1] Freud recognized that repetitions in his patients were combinations of repressed memories and a resistance to remember them. Rather than curbing these repetitions, he sought to transform them in the “harmless” space of analysis.

Kierkegaard juxtaposed repetition with recollection. He claimed that the Greeks “taught that all knowing is a recollecting” but that “modern philosophy will teach that all life is a repetition.” The difference between repetition and recollection, in Kierkegaard’s mind, was neither a matter of degree nor of kind, but of direction. “Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward.” Repetition, because it moves forward, has the possibility of making a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy.[2] If there is a credo to Taggart’s work, it’s move forward. In the brief introductory remarks to a rare poetry reading in 2001 at the occasion of Taggart’s retirement from teaching, Pam Rehm, who had been one of Taggart’s students at Shippensburg University, said, “John always taught me that the important thing is to move forward. So that’s what I’m going to do.” At which point, she started her reading.[3] Expanding into a defined field of almost complete freedom and moving forward: these are the creative results of repetition.

Mark Rothko, in a statement about his paintings, once referred to his art as “a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again.” The immense freedoms represented in the repetitions in his paintings seemingly moved into the future. Taggart, confessing himself “tremendously moved” by Rothko’s assertion, admits to having wanted to make a poem worthy of it. “As I moved closer to the composition of such a poem,” he writes, “it became clear to me that I would have to find ways to translate the qualities inhering not only in stained glass and Rothko’s painting, but also those in Gregorian chant and Meister Eckhart. These qualities would have to come to exist in language as sound. It occurs to me that all my work, before and since this poem, involves translation, or, more accurately, transformation to make a poem ‘a sound object.’”[4]

The poem whose composition he moved closer to is “Slow Song for Mark Rothko,” which appeared originally in Peace on Earth, published in 1981 by Turtle Island, a book usefully measured as Taggart’s creative turning point. Consider the opening stanza of “Slow Song for Mark Rothko”:

To breathe and stretch one’s arms again

 to breath through the mouth to breathe to

 breathe through the mouth to utter in

 the most quiet way not to whisper not to whisper

 to breathe through the mouth in the most quiet way to

 breathe to sing to breathe to sing to breathe

 to sing the most quiet way.[5]

 

It’s possible today to speak of the “Taggart line,” which can be described as a line of poetry built from “atomic” units of words and phrases repeated in a way to give rhythm and structure to the poem, which are then overturned in subsequent lines that test, resist, stretch, and repeat these elements. In Taggart’s poetry, repetition almost never means literally repeating. Rather, as Taggart describes it, the atomic phrases function so that “no one of them [is] complete as with a sentence, but [each is] kept continually in motion toward completion.”[6] This motion toward completion generates the sonic and intellectual properties of the definite field or playground of Taggart’s poems, something that is allowed to expand in almost complete freedom. Genuine repetition is recollected forward. As he puts it in section 15 of  “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” from There Are Birds:

sequence = one after

 another set of things that belong together that are put together

 that are made to hold together …

 repetition of a phrase a unit/part of a melody at a higher or lower pitch

 a phrase-mark a line linking notes that belong together

 dependence of a subordinate verb according to rules of tense for the principle verb

 the principle verb is think[7]

 

The relationship between liberating expression and carefully repeated atomic phrases transforms Taggart’s poems from rote litany into the incantatory petition his work so frequently invokes. Take these lines from “Precious Lord,” in which Taggart rings through changes on the word “epiphany”:

Thomas Dorsey wrote the words wrote the words and the music

 Thomas Dorsey wrote the words wrote the essential word

 wrote “precious” not “blessed” the essential word is “precious”

 this was meant to be enshrined as a moment of epiphany

 moment when he wrote the better sounding word

 moment of epiphanie epiphania epiphano epiphaneia epiphanies

 moment of epiphany essential word shining picture

 Dorsey: “that thing like something hit me and went all over me

 that thing must be that same thing went all over him.[8]

 

Much as the Taggart line starts from certain words the poet fixates on — precious, epiphany, saint, want — to develop from a line into a stanza into a progression, the effect is experienced not as fixation (or as a compulsion to repeat) but as cantillation, in which the struck bells of the words and phrases resound as other bells of words ring out, in rhythmical, repeated sequences that drift into harmony, but then unsettle into slight dissonance.


John Taggart, George Oppen, and Ted Enslin: Taggart notes, “this was 1975 at Sylvester’s Cove, Maine. We had been visiting Ted at his place in Temple (Maine — Denise and Mitch Goodman lived not far away) and agreed to meet with George and Mary for a picnic. They sailed over from their summer place at Little Deer Isle” (photo by Jennifer Taggart).

To suggest there is only one Taggart line, however, would be misleading. I think Taggart’s work can usefully be organized into three major periods, albeit ones with intermediate periods that incorporate elements from previous periods into the next. Taggart’s early poetry is characterized as Objectivist experiment, to put it one way. Objectivist writing, which is probably the single most important influence on Taggart’s work, is a label applied to a group of second-generation Modernists who began to work in the 1930s but whose major works tended to be produced in the 1960s, including Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, and, to a lesser degree, Basil Bunting, whose work emphasized the treatment of the poem as an object, and whose most significant predecessors were William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. Taggart’s poetry in an identifiably Objectivist mode encompasses a decade of work, beginning with To Construct a Clock, which appeared in 1971 when the poet was twenty-nine years old, through The Pyramid Is a Pure Crystal, The Prism and the Pine Twig, into Dodeka, which was published in 1979. Two of these books, To Construct a Clock and The Prism and the Pine Twig, include shorter lyric poems that reflect Taggart’s investment in the work of George Oppen. Both Pyramid and Dodeka are more distinctly informed by a craft inspired by Louis Zukofsky, in that the books — each made up of one single serial poem apiece — involve complex compositional systems that place considerable demands — and stress — on the poems themselves.

Peace on Earth, from 1981, as I’ve already indicated, is a turning point. This book, comprised of four poems, signaled a seemingly enormous change in Taggart’s work. Gone were the short, Objectivist lyrics. Gone too were the complex systems, and the constraining boxes around the poems. Here were poems that breathed and stretched their arms, even as they took on grave subjects, such as the cost and aftermath of the Vietnam War explored in the title poem. The mode that Taggart discovered at this time directed his work for the next fifteen years, culminating in the publication of Loop in 1991. This is a massive book of poetry — over 230 pages — that gathers most of Taggart’s work from the 1980s, including one of his most memorable works, “The Rothko Chapel Poem.” He continued to explore this opened line in two subsequent books, Standing Wave and Crosses, the latter of which, despite being recently published (2005), contains work from the early to mid-1990s. If Taggart’s first period were to be labeled Objectivist experiment, this second period might profitably be called minimalist incantation. I first heard Taggart read his poetry in the early nineties; the effect of listening to his poems spoken aloud was to understand the mesmerizing, hypnagogic modality at work in these compositions.

Music, of course, has been a recurrent feature in Taggart’s work, from medieval plainchant, to modal jazz and John Coltrane, to Beethoven, to Olivier Messiaen, to gospel and R&B. A musical discovery signaled the change that brought Taggart into his third, present period. Commissioned to write a poem about Coltrane’s epic “A Love Supreme,” Taggart found himself grieving for the loss of a friend, the sculptor Bradford Graves. At the same time, Taggart began listening to the music of Sainte-Colombe, the eighteenth-century French composer and master of the viole da gambe, a prototype of the cello, as well as the bass viol, which he legendarily modified by adding a seventh, lower string, to give the instrument an even deeper melancholic timbre than it already presented. Taggart worked these elements — Coltrane, grief and loss, rose gardening, and Sainte-Colombe, among many others — into a singularly powerful long poem, When the Saints (1999), that added to the repetitive line of his middle period a much shorter line that in turn generates shorter stanzas, allowing for increased expressivity in his poetry (of grief, of course, but also a bittersweet humor) resembling less the minimalism of his middle period but more the variable musical forms that characterize Beethoven’s late string quartets (an enduring source of inspiration for Taggart’s poetry), as well as the choruses of Rhythm & Blues. This form came fully to life in Pastorelles (2004), which joins another musical/literary form, the medieval French pastourelle — a lyric that depicts scenes of rural life or that is expressive of that atmosphere — with the broader musical concept of the pastoral, something Beethoven famously brought to life in his Pastoral Symphony in 1808. The recurring subject of these poems is the drought that in the late 1990s hit south-central Pennsylvania, where Taggart has lived for several decades, particularly as the drought affected Taggart’s carefully cultivated gardens. This current mode, which might be labeled meditative plaint, has been especially fruitful for Taggart, in spite of its source in drought and grief, producing some of his most memorable poetry. He has continued to expand and to explore this mode in There Are Birds (2008), where his sonic, musical notations have given way to botanical, horticultural reflections, most vividly in “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” the long poem that comprises most of the volume, but also in the shorter lyrics which, like the longer poem, signal Taggart’s indebtedness to his poetic ancestors, including poems addressed to the recently deceased Robert Creeley, and also to Zukofsky, who we learn is the subject of “the one/only photograph on my wall.” Having browsed the shelves and seen the desks where Taggart composes his letters and poems in his rural Pennsylvania home, I can attest to this fact: the only photograph on the walls of his study is the portrait of Zukofsky he describes in “Grey Scale/Zukofsky.”

To view Taggart’s uses of repetition — genuine repetition is recollected forward — it’s time to look more closely at some poetry. I choose three poems from the most recent of Taggart’s periods, the one I’m calling meditative plaint. The first two come from Pastorelles, probably one of Taggart’s most successful books and certainly one of his best. This book represents a breakthrough of sorts: a collection of shorter lyrics unified around the theme of drought and the havoc it wreaked on his extensive gardens. The tone of these poems is one of wry resignation and associative clarities — as in previous books, the phrase remains the sonic unit but in these poems the phrases are bound less often by direct repetition and more often by thematic and tonal repetitions. Here is “Pastorelle 15,” a short poem:

The Chinese

 in the drought of 1876–1879 reportedly confused

 rustling of dry leaves for rain

 when the ear’s not yet adulterated/unadulterated in the morning

 late at night or very early in the morning

 it sounds like rain.[9]

 

A splendid little poem. Its lyric surprise relies on the unwinding of the syntax to the last line, which repeats the key word, “rain,” the sound of which in the mind mimics the actuality of the dry leaves clattering in the morning or evening breezes. The poem begins to expand syntactically and imagistically in the fourth line, “when the ear’s not yet adulterated/unadulterated,” aided by the absence of punctuation, such that the phrases connect and compound. (Minimal use of punctuation is a trait consistent throughout Taggart’s work.) The pairing of adulterated/unadulterated is important to the poem: initially, it suggests sexual corruption (or its lack) and by extension, the sense of being tainted/untainted. But it’s also a botanical word, used to describe hybrids and pure breeds in flower growing, for instance. The ear not yet stained by the day or tuned to the sensitivities of the day, moving forward into the day, at first hears rain. The genuine repetition in this poem is not only the word “rain” but the idea of its sound carried through the whole.

“Why Trees Weep,” also from Pastorelles, returns to the idea of rain, albeit by association. Here, as in “Pastorelle 15,” the elements of the poem, including its ideas (its logopoeia), are kept in motion until the poem is completed:

Because they’re listening to Sainte Columbe’s “Les Pleurs”

 because those they would love don’t

 love them flee

 from them

 because their neighbors are beset with illness/disease experience

 pain in movement or

 can’t move can only sit in gardens going to weeds

 Niobe lost all her children.[10]

 

This poem depends on the simple gesture of three answers to the implied question of the title, each introduced by the repeated anaphora of “because.” The patent absurdity of the first response takes us back into one of the repeated engagements of When the Saints, the book-length poem published prior to Pastorelles: Taggart’s involvement with the music of Sainte-Columbe, the reclusive seventeenth-century viol da gambe innovator. When the Saints is Taggart’s elegy to his friend, sculptor Bradford Graves. In this book he introduces the mode of meditative plaint he perfects in Pastorelles. Sainte-Columbe caught his attention because of the superbly melancholic timbre of his music, resulting as many believe from the seventh string in a lower register he added to the viol da gambe, which Taggart describes in When the Saints:

Sainte Columbe added a string

 seventh string

 Sainte Columbe added a string to the viol

 six

 six + one

 added a vibration

 six vibrations

 six vibrations + one vibration

 added a vibration and changed the vibration

 added harmony and changed harmony

 changed the destination of the music

 the destination changed

 became inward

 secret

 inward and secret destination.[11]

 

We can take changing the destination of the music as a phrase synonymous with genuine repetition is recollected forward. The inward, secret destination of the music awaits the reader in the poems of Pastorelles, where inwardness is meditation and plaint, at least in “Why Trees Weep.”

Niobe was the wife of the Theban king Amphion, mother of seven sons and seven daughters. So proud she was of her children that one day she was boasting to Leto, daughter of Titans and mother merely to twins but sired by Zeus: Apollo and Artemis. Robert Graves sets the vivid scene: “Mante, the prophetic daughter of Teiresias, overhearing this rash remark, advised the Theban women to placate Leto and her children at once: burning frankincense and wreathing their hair with laurel branches. When the scent of incense was already floating in the air, Niobe appeared, followed by a throng of attendants and dressed in a splendid Phrygian robe, her long hair flowing loose. She interrupted the sacrifice and furiously asked why Leto, a woman of obscure parentage, with a mannish daughter and a womanish son, should be preferred to her, Niobe, grandchild of Zeus and Atlas, the dread of the Phrygians, and a queen of Cadmus’s royal house? Though fate or ill-luck might carry off two or three of her children, would she not still remain the richer?”[12] Leto was not placated. Before Niobe could do anything about it, her superior twins, armed with bows, were seeking and destroying Niobe’s children, slaying them all. In her grief, Niobe wept until she was turned into a column of stone.

Taggart’s poem works together into a gloss the myth of Niobe, the mystery of Sainte-Columbe’s music, and the fact of trees, whose anthropomorphism in his poem casts them as Ovidian actors in his own transformation of music into an inward summons. Besides sound repetitions, Taggart avails mythic, thematic repetitions: Niobe’s loss anticipates Sainte Columbe’s melancholic music anticipates the death of Taggart’s friend, Bradford Graves, anticipates his recollection of that loss in this little poem.

The third poem I’d like to consider in terms of its repetitions is “Show and Tell/Robert Creeley,” from There Are Birds. This poem belongs in the company of other recent poems functioning partly as homage and partly as what might be called “an autobiography of my lineage.” Despite a habit of writing essays in which he wrestles his ancestors, in his poetry Taggart is more forthcoming about his debts. In Pastorelles, there is a poem entitled “William Bronk” and another entitled “Lorine Niedecker.” There Are Birds includes a poem for Louis Zukofsky, a long poem called “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” and “Show and Tell/Robert Creeley.” Reading and reciting poetry are other forms of repetition, ones that deepen a poet’s sense of the work he values. Taggart describes this in the opening lines of another poem from Pastorelles, “The Compulsion to Repeat”:

Gradually how gradually

 one comes to understand the poets

 as gradually as

 the compulsion of one’s own compulsion the compulsion to repeat[13]

 

The Robert Creeley poem, written as an elegy after the poet’s death in 2005, is atypically autobiographical, telling the story of Taggart as a young man experiencing a first deep recognition while reading a poem of Creeley’s. The scene of the poem is Aspen, Colorado in the 1960s. He writes:

this is me then young man young poet

 beside the Roaring Fork or a tributary the open blue and white For Love

book in one hand

 the other in a gesture of appeal

 the assignment show and tell show what

 you love

 this poem “A Song”

 fine clockwork of it subtle grammar of it of its words

 their sounds and arrayment

 Monk/Mozart refinement of the shifting pitches of this poem all fitted

together quiet and

 quiet

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

churned

 up white water[14]

 

The repetitions and prolongations in the line, “fine clockwork of it subtle grammar of it of its words,” demonstrate a poetic gesture typical of Taggart’s work: preserving the structure of a phrase to push a thought forward, always slightly altered and adjusted. Much like some of the gestures of classic-period minimalist music.

Creeley’s poem, “A Song,” from For Love, which Taggart’s poem deliberately echoes, is both a provocation and a summons, both especially potent for a susceptible young poet to receive.

I had wanted a quiet testament

 and I had wanted, among other things,

 a song.

              That was to be

 of a like monotony.

                                       (A grace

 Simply. Very very quiet.

                                               A murmur of some lost

 thrush, though I have never seen one.

 Which was you then. Sitting

 and so, at peace, so very much now this same quiet.

 A song.

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

 perpetuity

                             (which is not reluctant, or if it is,

 it is no longer important.

 A song.

 Which one sings, if he sings it,

 with care.[15]

 

With great tenderness and unabashed grief, the older poet looks back on the image of the younger poet he was, sitting by the side of the river, and remembers being provoked and summoned by Creeley’s poem. The potential for bathos in such a poem is great unless handled with honesty and care. “[H]ear me now all these years later,” he says. “[R]eading with older/different eyes / which see what they see through/after tears the locked the unacknowledged.”[16] Unacknowledged is the grace received at that moment from Creeley’s poem about “a girl so bright/in bloom who rejoices the heart.”[17] The poet’s death and the memory of this moment trigger in Taggart a “motive for remembering” (to use Freud’s phrase again) that allows him to work through his grief. The conclusion to the poem is a highlight in Taggart’s oeuvre.

a poet’s thinking the long labor with words

 the tenses

 want wanted have/had wanted not what a young man was so wanting and

wanting but what a

 song wants just a few a spoonful of the right the rough and the smooth

 words in the right order here and

 there a rest making room for breath and letting a few of the words sink in

 careful/with care how a song is to be sung if one sings it and

 the last of the requirements

 for care is clear having come through the ambiguities/tears having had to

learn the meaning

 of the blues

 what will fit on a bracelet a simple inscription

 all these years later

 hear me now having stepped back and needing to come forward

 this poem is a song an

 act

 a work of love[18]

 

Taggart is one of the most important innovators in American poetry in the past fifty years, the author, in the words of Robert Duncan, “of the larger dream-song of a transmission that goes back surely to Herakleitos and Pythagoras,” carrying forward into the present “a received content of our poetic imperative.”[19] His poems define my sense of experimentation and revelation in a life devoted to poetry, poems that incant, in compulsive repetitions expanding into freedom, the dimensions of a definite field, a playground of language, wherein we might discover, if not everything, at least many of the things that lay hidden in the mind.

 


 

1. Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud XII, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1958), 154.

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

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

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

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

6. Taggart, Songs of Degrees, 72.

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

8. Taggart, Is Music, 203.

9. Ibid., 273.

10. Ibid., 275.

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

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

13. Taggart, Is Music, 256.

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

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

16. Taggart, Is Music, 310.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., 311–2.

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

Shadow memory shadows music

Contextualized notes on John Taggart’s prosody

Part 1: Contexts for John Taggart’s prosody

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Part 2: John Taggart’s prosody in practice

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

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

They are ghosts

 And are still separate, charms past use

They have no meeting together,

 Ghosts moving their sleeves

 To the sound of the drum

 

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

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

*

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

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

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

Face cut: seeds spill

 seeds within seeds

 on fire, white sparks

 in a dark house.

 

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

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

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

The first unison begins with these lines:

Eyes on fire

 burn bright, eyes on fire burn, eyes

 eat

 their love.

 Fire eyes cut earth face

                                                  spill seeds

 seeds like dice, like wine

                                                  seeds pour out, then die

 white sparks in fire’s light,

 dark in dark house.

 

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

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

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

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

*

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

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


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

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

the sleeper sleeps

 here is the woman

 the sleeper sleeps

 she has rolled him up in her hand

 here is the woman

 the sleeper sleeps

 she has rolled him up in her hand

 here is the woman

 I am the sleeper

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 hear you have to give you have to give ear you

 who have you who have ears you who have ears to

 hear you have to give ear to hear the traveler you

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

 ears to hear the traveler who is a bird to

 hear the traveler who is a bird who so sings.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

there are birds there is birdsong

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

Cadenza 3 consists of the line

There are birds

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

4. Silliman’s Blog, January 7, 2005.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Taggart: From his own words

A 2009 letter from Taggart to Joel Chace.

As Lorine Niedecker once wrote of Louis Zukofsky, I can write the same of John Taggart: “I [am] fortunate enough to call him friend and mentor.” I met John back in 1985 as a freshman at Shippensburg University. By some strange luck, I like to believe it was the hands of the gods, I was assigned John as my adviser. I was an undeclared major with “poetry” listed under Hobbies on my application. Perhaps this was the deciding factor that got me placed with him; whatever the case, that placement turned into a mentorship and a friendship that have lasted to the present day.

I have no desire to talk about John’s work in a critical way; the work stands on its own. My inclination is toward biography. Once, when speaking with John on the telephone I let him know that I was reading a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and then I made the comment “I don’t know why I like biography so much.” And John remarked “It’s because you’re nosy.” We both laughed. I would defend myself and say “curious.” I think curiosity is any writer’s hunger. So through the thoughts and advice in John’s letters came the revelation that the one I called Dr. Taggart was also human. Just such a reward is probably one of the reasons why correspondence is so desired.

And John’s is a true correspondence, i.e., handwritten. I have included parts from early letters and worked forward through the years. I didn’t start out looking for anything in particular, just for what I thought was most interesting, but now that the selections are next to one another I can see that there’s a definite “religious” theme about them. But what more could be expected; as John has written me on more than one occasion, “My ‘project’ is to rewrite the Bible.”

______________________________________________________________________

 

Sept. 10, 1989

Still, for a number of reasons you may come to agree with, I’m happy to be the age I am and can imagine little worse than being time-machined back into earlier moments. If nothing else, as the example of Lorine makes clear in her own life, the art can truly get better as you go along; you can get better, you can get to the point where you’re doing what you actually want to do. One of the curious things is that something of a return is often involved. (The Loop title is no accident.) If my own experience is anything to go on, there can be a movement forward. Of course we think we’re moving forward all along, but I have my doubts. In my case, there had to be not only a going back, e.g., to the church, but a consciousness of what was involved: this is me.

 


Jan 10, 1990

You ask about religion. Having been born into that profession (not to forget, the name Taggart means “priest’s son”), it has taken me a long time to acknowledge it as my world and context. This is not quite the same as having a “view” about it. You can find traces of that in my poems, but the main thing is the acknowledgement itself. It is what is missing in much otherwise admirable contemporary work. And I think that must eventually tell against it. You don’t have to be a believer, don’t have to like it, but you have to have some sense of it to be truly human. To put it most flatly, it has to be part (if not the whole) of your vocabulary. Per Dickinson & Melville, remember that you can belong to the loyal opposition.

 


12-9-92

Enclosed is a recent poem [“Into The Hill Country”]. It’s a version of the visitation (Mary & Elizabeth). It may be that my “project” is to rewrite the Bible. No lack of work to be done!

 


September 24, 1995

Growing up in a series of small Midwestern towns, some of which were quite attractive, it’s fair enough to say that the world of books was much more alive and real to me than my immediate surroundings. And this extended to the church. I had, of course, to go every Sunday. But I would always go with at least one book of my own choosing, which, whatever else, would never be the Bible. What biblical knowledge I have is either the product of much later reading or recollections from Sunday School or my Father’s sermons. Enforced attendance makes for resistance and so I was a rebel, if on the subdued side, from the beginning. Dostoevsky or A. J. Cronin (popular novelist of the 50’s) or Salinger would always be in my church suit pocket or craftily (I thought) secreted inside my hymnal. Enforced attendance also makes for the development of a “critical” intelligence. I listened closely to my Father, always on the lookout for flaws in his arguments, weaknesses in his presentations. It makes me keenly aware of the public (spoken) exertion of power. I couldn’t help noticing how he moved a congregation one way or another. And there were other things I couldn’t help but notice: the theatre component of the service — robes, costuming, music, liturgy, the ritual of communion in particular — which, at home & behind the scenes as it were — were always discussed in terms of theatre, judged/evaluated as performance. And here & there I also noted instances of quiet, utterly sincere faith & devotion, persons of that quality. Now the odd thing is that none of this shows up in my early writing, either prose fiction (with which I began) or poetry. I wanted to sound like Robbe-Grillet or Celine or Stevens. It was only when I had done the Pyramid book and felt myself to be at what might be called an impasse of experiment, when I began to question the idea of avant garde experimentation as a worthwhile goal in itself. That it all came back. That is, I felt compelled to acknowledge the existence/value of my own experience and try to do more with it than a version of confessional reporting. In terms of music, it meant turning away from Stockhausen, Cage, Xenakis & others to the wonderfully (terribly?) sexy and innocent rock music I’d grown up with in the 50’s & early 60’s, much of it, importantly, black music. And, true enough, church music, hymn tunes, was involved. This is why Ives often moves me to tears. I can’t help but recognize the hymns he draws from and, as with the piano and violin sonatas, draws away from. A key in this was Kierkegaard, whom I read as a high school student but without anything like real understanding until much later on. He is for me the essence of the Protestant intelligence, which is not to deny his wide learning and considerable wit. The difference is that, finally, I don’t make the movement of faith. So in the end I remain resistant, even though I know I’m dependent upon what’s being resisted. It’s also the case that I have an abiding respect for what’s being resisted, not simply as “material” but as a reality in my life. All the church windows of very ordinary churches, not cathedrals, are real to me. And as they constitute a return to reality, they are more than simply real as actual; they are the windows through & by which I see. Which may simply be another way of saying that, essentially, I’m a rather elderly child, a child of pain as I most often feel in confrontation with the crucifixion picture/window.

 


A 1973 letter from Taggart to Ronald Johnson (courtesy of Peter O‘Leary).


April 13, 1997

At the moment I’m collecting some notes for the Zukofsky conference Bob Creeley is sponsoring at the end of the month. Luckily, Melville was all too much with me when he called, and the arrangement is that I’ll read a poem (The Pyramid Is A Pure Crystal) instead of reading a paper. The notes are to function as an introduction to the poem, which was dedicated to L. Z. when it was first published by Elizabeth Press. It’s been years since I last looked at this poem: a peculiar experience to revisit one’s thinking of over 20 yrs ago. I don’t know that I like the poem all that much, but I was intrigued with the boxes which are printed around the tiny poems in each series. It occurs to me that this is what I am: the poet of the box, the poet of boxes! If I could present what truly interests me, it would be something on the order of: the Platonic solids & the box kites of Alexander Graham Bell! Have you ever seen the old National Geographic photo of Bell & dozens of men pulling at a rope to get one of his giant kites (the shape of an abstract wing) into the air? That’s my idea of a good time! Actually, seeing kites at Bell’s “studio” in Nova Scotia was a galvanizing experience for me. There’s something quite magical about those geometric shapes and the delicacy of the materials (silk & very thin strips of wood). Well, I found it magical. A room of one’s own is a good idea, but a workroom filled with giant kites in various stages of construction strikes me as infinitely preferable. For a kite is a crystal made visible, a crystal you can see (inside out) & fly in the air.

 


January 26, 1998

Came across an article on Ned Rorem in the Times last week. Not one of my favorite composers, but something he said struck me. Approximate quotation: artists aren’t wild, crazy people; they’re the truly sane ones who know what they must do all their lives. And if there’s some appreciation, however slight, that’s great. A decent credo, I think. The only problem is, speaking only for myself, we tend to need reminding what it is that must be done. As for appreciation, I must tell you about an unlooked for example. Shortly before Christmas a Lutheran minister from Kansas called. He’d been struck by the Marvin Gaye poem & wondered if he could send me something by way of, yes, appreciation. This turned out to be no less than 8 cassette tapes of all sorts of music! & as an omen of sorts, the last selection on the very last tape was the opening from Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” This is a “project” I’ve been thinking about for some time (a poem in response to that music). A tremendous gift, and I’ll take [it] as a charm for what I know will be a major undertaking.

 


1.23.03

Thank you for your kind comments on the pastorelle poems. Their opening out into the rural, as you say, was a gradual process: gradually becoming aware of things around our place, literally learning their names, the names of plants as well as of the persons making up our local history. About equally gradual and “unconscious,” picked up as one goes along. Then, again, not altogether unconscious, i.e., reading WCW on American culture, specifically the immediate as local, played a part, almost forcing me against my will to realize/acknowledge that this was, in fact, my culture and, as such, what was to be acted upon in terms of writing. It took some time to get comfortable with single page poems. I like the fact that they’re scattered throughout a larger book. That way the water-torture effect is avoided (or so I hope).

 


8.9.07

Not sure if beginners know what they need in their beginnings (an older recognition that one may have been lucky even if that very luck is resented). There seems to be a basic choice between writing as if each try is a new beginning or using what you already have and trying to extend/push it a bit further. So the examples of WCW & Stevens. Main thing: try to avoid writing the same poem over & over!

Taggart: Sound and Vision

[From a little over a decade ago — first published at Flashpoint — a meditation on what now — it seems clear — is to be considered “mid-period” Taggart, before the remarkable shift and efflorescence of Pastorelles and There Are Birds: the poetics of Standing Wave, Crosses, and above all that various and monumental collection Loop, a book which in my mind looms over American poetry of the 1980s and 1990s like the black monolith of Kubrick’s 2001 — or, more often, beckons like an enclave of vast, multilayered, shimmering Rothkos.]


1. Sounds 

“The act of reading,” John Taggart writes in his book on Edward Hopper, Remaining in Light, “is akin to the ceaseless motion of an ant on a moebius strip.”[1] For “reading,” read listening, and looking, as well — the “gift,” if you will, of sound and vision. A Möbius strip, of course, is a loop of paper — you can make one yourself — with a twist in it; it’s that twist that makes the loop’s face endless: a three-dimensional object with only one surface. Where does that highway go to? Loop is the title of Taggart’s largest collection of poems; it was published in 1991, after, as Robert Fripp says somewhere about one of his records, “delays by dinosaurs.” Eleven years before, the pop band Talking Heads released their fourth album, Remain in Light. It was a controversial record, the product in part of bandleader David Byrne’s and producer Brian Eno’s intense, schoolboy-crush-like collaboration. (The first product of their woodshedding was the Eno/Byrne My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an odd and hyperintellectual reimagining of the Parliament-Funkadelic sound, crossed with various African beats and more than a touch of mid-seventies Miles.) Remain in Light expanded the band — formerly a trim four-piece — with extra percussionists, backing vocalists, and guitars; it moved them from the taut, witty New York new wave into a more expansive, funky, polyrhythmic territory. Eno, Byrne, and the rest of the band collaborated on the compositions, and Eno’s fingerprints were all over the vocal arrangements, more often than not odd workouts on the call-and-response pattern, Eno’s baritone choruses responding to Byrne’s edgy, faux-evangelist sprechstimme. And the songs — at least the longer ones — were built on loops, taped rhythm section passages over which guest musicians like Adrian Belew could wail to their hearts’ delight.

The loop, whether actual or conceptual, was central to the early development of what came to be known as “minimalist” music. Steve Reich’s early pieces “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965) and “Come Out” (1966) were built out of tape loops; his “Violin Phase” pitted a taped violin part against a real-time violinist. Around the same time, Terry Riley was developing keyboard performance techniques that relied on loops and tape delays, most expansively showcased in his Rainbow in Curved Air album. The English composer Gavin Bryars’s “Sinking of the Titanic” was a fully scored imitation of a vast, slowed-down tape loop; his “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” (1971) was built — famously or infamously — around a tape loop of an old tramp’s singing. Both of these Bryars works — not incidentally — were recorded and released in 1975 on Brian Eno’s Obscure records label, which also released the first recordings of another English minimalist, Michael Nyman — this, of course, long before Nyman became a soundtrack machine and minor celebrity.

Five years later Eno produced Talking Heads’s Remain in Light, and it was almost certainly at Eno’s suggestion that Memphis trumpeter Jon Hassell was brought in to lend a breathy, multitracked horn part to the song “Houses in Motion.” That part is vintage Hassell — pure R&B riffs through the verses and chorus, then, when it comes time for him to solo, Hassell’s leaping up into the microtones and raga scales taught him by his mentor, the great Kirana singer Prandit Pran Nath. Hassell, whose Aka-Dabari-Java/Magic Realism is one of the great unremembered records of the 1980s, has never quite settled down generically to any record company’s liking. Most recently, he’s contributed a hip-hop styled soundtrack to the TV series The Practice and has played on a pair of albums with guitarist Ry Cooder, one of them idiosyncratic reworkings of Duke Ellington standards, the other classic Indian ragas. And Hassell, of course, was present at the beginning of minimalism: he played on the 1968 large ensemble first recording of Terry Riley’s groundbreaking piece In C.

In C is a composition for any number of musicians, playing any instruments capable of meeting the pitch requirements of the score. The score consists of fifty-three melodic figures, through which each musician progresses, determining for him- or herself how many times to repeat each figure and how to align it with what’s being played by the other members of the ensemble. The music coheres, both through the individual musicians’ sensitivity — their listening to their fellows — and through an underlying “pulse.”  Not the pulse of a metronome or drum machine, nor the pulse of a tape loop — but an organic pulse, carried and passed along by the members of the collective. “Large definitions commit one to a long line,” Taggart writes. “The line is prevented from falling in on itself by a recurrent, but never exactly repeating, cadence. This cadence undergoes a continuous motion (transformation).”[2] And the poem — like the score of In C — cannot be an experience only of vision, but must be a performed thing: “As I came to discover, such a poem would have to be read aloud to make sense. The reader would have to break the silence of the cold page. There could be a liberation of participation, an ending of the silence and solitude.”[3] More tersely: “‘Peace On Earth’ is meant to be more than one person’s private response to the war in Vietnam.”[4]

“A recurrent, but never exactly repeating, cadence.” The mechanical loop repeats precisely, inexorably, with the sterility of Ford’s assembly line; the “exactly repeating cadence” is the Taylorization of the poet, the talented sophomore’s iambic pentameter. The mechanical loop’s contents, even when human-generated — Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz’s rhythms, the old tramp Gavin Bryars recorded one day in London — come back to us again and again, “same as it ever was.” The only thing that can be of interest about such loops is the human reaction to them. Bryars’s tramp’s singing is remarkably in tune, but, like a solo bluesman’s, his sense of time is elastic: his melodic fragment ends on a fermata, and the first bar of the thirteen (the song is in 3/4 time) is ever so slightly shortened. The tramp, long dead but interred upon a tape loop, sings the song in precisely the same (irregular) way every time (approximately 170 iterations on the most recent recording of the piece); the accompanying musicians, however, seem always — over and over again — slightly taken aback by his irregularities. It is in their momentary awkwardnesss that the piece’s pathos resides.

Gertrude Stein, in 1934: “every time one of the hundreds of times a newspaper man makes fun of my writing and of my repetition he always has the same theme, always having the same theme, that is, if you like, repetition, that is if you like repeating that is the same thing, but once started expressing this thing, expressing any thing there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis … insistence that in its emphasis can never be repeating, because insistence is always alive and if it is alive it is never saying anything in the same way because emphasis can never be the same not even when it is most the same.”[5] By itself, the tape loop goes nowhere, is pure repetition. When the voice enters — the voice that “invades,” that “lays,” that “eats the face away,” that “turns the face of the listener, member among the members, into its excrement” — when the voice enters, the tape loop becomes the Möbius strip.


2.  Reading: Vision and revisions

One loop from Remain in Light to the first flowering of minimalism, then back again. This isn’t playing degrees of separation, by the way — maybe instead something one might rudely miscall “songs of degrees.” No one wants to be Greil Marcus here, and dig out the underground connections between Johnny Rotten and the seventeenth-century antinomians — at least not in this piece of writing. There is, however, an aesthetic continuity that flows underneath the more interesting developments in late twentieth-century pop music, “serious” music, and jazz, a continuity that one wouldn’t want to reduce to the term “minimalism.” An interest in repetition, in stasis, in movement through suspended movement. 

“It occurs to me,” says Taggart, “that all my work, before and since [“Slow Song for Mark Rothko”], involves translation or, more accurately, transformation to make the poem a ‘sound object.’”[6] Transformation rather than translation: transformation is “the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody” (Zukofsky); translation is the poetics of August Kleinzahler’s meager creative writing professors, “paunchy with drink”: “If there is a mallard in the reeds / they will take it. / They will take it and make it their own, / something both more than a duck / and less.”[7] But why need the poet look, at a mallard, or Edward Hopper’s “A Woman in the Sun,” or the panels of the Rothko chapel, in order to write? Why not simply effuse, let the cords of sensibility vibrate like an Aeolian harp to the winds of inspiration? “What is at stake,” writes Taggart, “is need. You find what you need, among the entire past and present universe, to get the job done. Your search in that universe of human objects and natural objects is guided by need.”[8]

The basis of all of Taggart’s poetry is looking — or listening, or reading — a repetitive, accretive, circling motion guided by need. “The poet, who is first a reader, makes no original discovery in reading. Instead, the poet becomes only more aware of the spiderweb connectedness of his or her sources and of the innumerable ghostly speakers still beyond them.”[9] “The world,” Guy Davenport once said to me, “was invented and arranged for James Joyce’s convenience.” Every detail within Joyce’s works, that is, connects to every other detail; and those works constitute a monstrous machine that spurs on its ant-reader to find the labyrinthine, rhizomatic connections that bind together, with a vast “spider web” or echo-chamber, the entire phenomenal world. Davenport argues that Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera is a precursor to Joyce’s as a “daedalian” work, searching out with passionate attention the multiple, even endless, intertwinings of human culture: Joyce, Pound, Zukofsky, David Jones, Basil Bunting, Susan Howe, have made such daedalian reading one of the principal and most vibrant modes of twentieth-century writing. Taggart stands, in his own idiosyncratic manner — and how else can any true artist stand? — with them. “Can love,” Zukofsky writes — and for “love,” read “passionate attention,” or “need” — “rouse a thing of the past / And not see it as present?”[10]

“I wonder,” Wallace Stevens — old, perhaps depressed — wrote in 1947, “have I lived a skeleton’s life, / As a questioner about reality, // A countryman of all the bones in the world?”[11] Seven years later he would answer himself, looking back upon his own poems: “That poem about the pineapple, the one / About the mind as never satisfied, // The one about the credible hero, the one / About summer, are not what skeletons think about.”[12] Even as one reads, one turns back and rereads, one subjects one’s visions to the process of revision. That process of self-revision, like the revision of one’s precursors, is of course not immune to the dangers of mere translation. In 1993, Philip Glass released his “‘Low’ Symphony,” based on music from David Bowie’s 1977 Low album, which Glass claimed (somewhat unconvincingly) had been of influence on his own work. Glass’s is a rather unmoving piece, burying Bowie and Eno’s spare and suggestive synthesizer motifs in a wash of post-Brahms orchestration. Soon after, Gavin Bryars released “new,” expanded versions of his “Sinking of the Titanic” and “Jesus’ Blood,” spinning those works out, through fussy arrangements, sound effects, and guest vocalists, into distended parodies of themselves. Wordsworth’s last, unfortunate version of The Prelude comes to mind. Perhaps one should look away from the accredited composers of minimalism, to Bill Laswell’s Panthalassa remixes of early seventies Miles, or to the Sacrilege CD, multiple reworkings by an array of star producers from the British, American, and European “techno” scenes of tunes by the legendary German band Can.


A poem from When the Saints.

You may ask yourself, as Stevens does, “well — how did I get here?” Taggart has returned to his own earlier visions, and without fail he has transformed them, made them into new visions. “The Game With Red” returns to “The Rothko Chapel Poem,” boiling that latter work’s expansive, complex meditation into a stark claustrophobia: “I cannot get outside the dark red doorway.”[13] The poet, “rectangles of light” falling through the windows onto his floor, works back through his entire oeuvre in “Rereading.” Has he lived a skeleton’s life, letting the days go by, water flowing underground? Of course not, for the poems reread in “Rereading” — among them “Peace on Earth,” “The Rothko Chapel Poem,” “Saul and David” — have come out of too scarifyingly immediate roots, and have themselves taken too deep root, for the poet to rest satisfied. There is a weariness here, a sense of the unending process of reading, of writing, of rewriting what has been written; the voice of “Vaguely Harmless,” as much as it implores, repeats, and emphasizes, cannot forget the “bones and whispy bits of hair / bones and bits of hair stuck in the memory” of “Black and White Close-Up.”[14] All the poet can do is keep reading, keep rereading and revising — keep moving: “What I can do is move wandering movement / what I can do is move in a wandering movement”[15]: “there can be no hope of rest.”[16]  To live — as poet and human being — is, again and again, with greater or lesser degrees of failure, to try to see. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” “Not seeing,” Taggart concludes Remaining in Light, “means not being alive. Being alive means seeing and thus trying to stay alive. We have the possibility of staying alive so long as we stay in motion, keep moving.”[17]

Is it unfair to say that all of Taggart’s poems are “remixes” of earlier texts, whether those texts are poems, paintings, recordings, passages of philosophy, snatches of conversation? No more unfair, I suppose, than to see Ulysses as a remix of the Odyssey, the events of Joyce’s own life, and a broad swatch of the whole of Western literature and thought. Or to see Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon as a remix of Cézanne, or Alfred Schnittke’s First Symphony as a complex rethinking of Shostakovich’s programmatic works, of the relationship between jazz and classical music, and of the entire nineteenth century of European music. The loop of sound and vision is endless. That’s where David Bowie is wrong, or self-defeating, or solipsistic — “I will sit right down / Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.” The gift will not come to one who only sits and waits; hearing and seeing are functions of movement, of the constant, labyrinthine, repetitive, nervous movements of the ear, eye, and mind. And — need one add? — of voice, which is the gift of Taggart’s poetry.

 


 

1. John Taggart, Remaining in Light: Ant Meditations on a Painting by Edward Hopper (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993), 47.

2. Taggart, “The Poem as a Woven Scarf,” in Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (University of Alabama Press, 1994), 76.

3. Taggart, “A Preface,” in Songs of Degrees, 73.

4. Taggart, “The Poem as a Woven Scarf,” in Songs of Degrees, 77.

5. Gertrude Stein, Lectures in America (1935; Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 167.

6. Taggart, “A Preface,” Songs of Degrees 72.

7. August Kleinzahler, “An Autumnal Sketch,” in Storm Over Hackensack (Mt. Kisco, NY: Moyer Bell Limited, 1985), 35.

8. Taggart, “A Preface,” 73.

9. Taggart, “Of the Power of the Word,” in Songs of Degrees, 127.

10. Louis Zukofsky, “A” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 199.

11. Wallace Stevens, “First Warmth,” in Opus Posthumous, ed. Milton J. Bates (New York: Knopf, 1989), 117.

12. Stevens, “As You Leave the Room,” in Opus Posthumous, 117.

13. Taggart, “The Game With Red,” in Loop (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1991), 233.

14. Taggart, “Vaguely Harmless,” in Standing Wave (Providence: Lost Roads, 1993), 73.

15. Taggart, “The Game With Red,” in Loop, 233.

16. Taggart, “Rereading,” in Standing Wave, 72.

17. Taggart, Remaining in Light, 137.

On singing and thinking

Taggart, George Oppen, and Ted Enslin, Sylvester’s Cove, Maine, 1975 (photo by Jennifer Taggart).

1. Under the heading “Poetry And Philosophy,” in an anthology of T. S. Eliot’s critical writings, there are several statements suggesting that poetry and thought are antithetical. For instance: “the poet who ‘thinks’ is merely the poet who can express the emotional equivalent of thought.”[1] And, writing of Dante and Shakespeare, Eliot claims that neither did any “real thinking,” but both made use of the thought of their times as “material enforced upon them” for the expression of their feelings.

2. George Oppen expressed high regard for Eliot, made use of Eliot’s poetry for his own purposes, and defined the poem as a process of thought. Which provokes the question: can you “do” poetry and philosophy at the same time, sing and think at the same time? Is it permissible to transgress upon the injunction of the Nike TV commercial “Do one thing. Do it well”?

3. George Oppen also expressed high regard for the painter Edward Hopper. Consider Hopper’s 1959 picture, “Excursion into Philosophy.” Hotel/motel room in a country setting, late morning or late afternoon. Two figures in this space and time. Semi-nude female sleeping on what looks like a hard, crypt-like purple bed. Fully clothed male sitting on the edge of the bed, his back to her back. She appears youthful, he less so. Also on the bed in a mediating position between the two of them is a book. The book is opened and bisected at a 45-degree angle by the shadow of her hip.

4. An excursion is a journey or “ramble” with intention of returning to one’s starting point. If that point is one of the points of your way or path of usual behavior, then an excursion is of relatively brief duration. Philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge, especially that which deals with ultimate reality or with the most general causes and principles of things and ideas and human perception and knowledge of them.[2] “Into”: the journey is not simply “to” philosophy as arriving and stopping at a destination but an arrival and an involvement with. Into suggests depth and motivation. You did more than arrive; however briefly, you decided or were determined to go further, further and deeper.

5. A logical question: what’s he into? Into the doing of the doing of philosophy. What do you do when you do philosophy? You think. We know this because he’s in the same position as Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker.” He’s in the thinker position; he must be thinking. There’s a reproduction of Rodin’s sculpture on the cover of a book by Heidegger, who was also held in high regard and used by Oppen. The title of the book is What Is Called Thinking? This is its conclusion: “the essential nature of thinking is determined by what there is to be thought about: the presence of what is present, the Being of beings.”[3]

6. A logical question: what made him do this doing called thinking? What led him into it? The book did. According to the painter’s wife, Jo Hopper, the book is Plato. Reading Plato makes you think. Honoring the nature of this occasion, let’s say he’s read the Symposium. Let’s say he’s read the passage in which Socrates tells Phaedrus and the others what he had been told by his love instructor, Diotima. It is a longish passage concerning the true order of doing, i.e., of attaining knowledge of “beauty absolute” by a step-wise progression “under the influence of true love” beginning from the beauties of the earth and ascending by way of single to plural beauties, fair practices and fair notions, to the ultimate destination of absolute beauty. Toward the end: “Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality).”[4]

7. The Platonic idea or form of beauty is abstract, an abstraction. Its existence is dependent upon a group of earlier thinkers, the Pre-Socratics. This is what they did to make that abstraction possible. From Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato: “discard both the rhythm on the one hand and the syntax of the image-series [narrative] on the other.” And it is these thinkers who “in fact start as poets … yet their enterprise was undertaken in order to destroy concretion and visibility.”[5] If that’s not enough and with reference to Heraclitus, also used by Oppen, and to that thinker’s employment of the aphorism as a means of breaking the “mindless flow of the bard’s metrical and musical spell. Particularly … it was to discard the accompaniment of a musical instrument.”[6] Getting to philosophy, into the doing of philosophy requires a lot of discarding and destroying. In order to think, poetry itself would seem to have to be discarded and destroyed. For if rhythm and music as well as the concretion and visibility of the image are taken away, what’s left?

8. We have a problem if, after Plato, we want to write a poem and find ourselves trying to write a poem not only after Plato but also after Pound. If we’re American poets, I don’t think such a problem, which is a problem of consciousness or self-consciousness, can be avoided. And of course many others are party to and contribute to this consciousness. It is a self-consciousness as to what the poet, what the poem is — is or can or should be. Besides the definitions and admonitions of Pound himself, its most elegant expression can be found in the prose writings of Louis Zukofsky. Thus good poetry is “precise information on existence out of which it grows, and information of its own existence … the movement (and tone) of words. Rhythm … is the distinction of its technique. This integrates any human emotion … into an order of words that exist as another created thing in the world, to affect it and to be judged by it. Condensed speech is most of the method of poetry.” Or most elegantly: poetry is “an order of words that as movement and tone (rhythm and pitch) approaches the wordless art of music.”[7]

9. We have a problem if we want to write a poem with that self-consciousness in our consciousness and conscience which moves in direct opposition to Plato in claiming the value of poetry and specifically with regard to precision (or the concrete) and rhythm (or cadence, the musical generally). That is, we have a problem if, as George Oppen, we inherit that self-conscious consciousness and would yet define the poem as a process of thought. We have a Plato-Pound problem, a double trouble problem.

10. Let us consider how Oppen deals with this problem, concentrating on song announced as such in certain of his poems. “Giovanni’s Rape Of The Sabine Women At Wildenstein’s” from This In Which. The poem, describing the statue, recreates the historic scene of sexual violence by which Romulus arranged marriages for his warriors and families for Rome.

  The dust

 Settles into village clarity

 Among the villagers, a difficult

 Song

 Full of treason

 Sing?

 To one’s fellows?

 To old men? In the villages,

 The dwindling heritage

 The heart will shrivel in

 Sometime —[8]

 

Clarity is equated with song even as here it must be a song full of treason, the villagers’ realization that they’ve been swindled. The repeated three questions, however, question song. From the close of the poem:

                                                         If this is treason
To the artist, make the most of it; one needs such faith,
Such faith in it,
In the whole thing, more than I,
Or they, have had in songs.  

The poet’s faith, as we know from an earlier poem, “Psalm,” in this same collection, is in the finite/empirical “whole thing” world and in the small nouns which body forth the disclosure of that world. What he doesn’t have faith in is songs. He is an artist who would willingly commit treason against art, if only to maintain fidelity to the world.

11. “Route,” section 10, from Of Being Numerous.

Not the symbol but the scene this pavement leads
To roadside — the finite

Losing its purposes
Is estranged

All this is reportage.

If having come so far we shall have
Song

Let it be small enough.

Virgin
What was there to be thought

Comes by the road[9]

Oppen’s route is not Plato’s stairway to heaven. It is precisely an image-series, of images as moments of clarity in terms of finite instances of the finite encountered along the way one’s life has taken. As a whole, the poem is a report of those encounters. (The line “All this is reportage” is a constant refrain throughout all its sections.) Song’s place in all the reportage is equivocal. If it is to be had, perhaps as a celebration that something and not nothing was encountered, it must be small, in scale with the finite. Something, say, a little less than Dryden’s “heavenly harmony.” The concern of the report, what it finds valuable, is thought not song.

That the Virgin should be part of Oppen’s route is peculiar. It recalls William Bronk’s “Virgin And Child With Music And Numbers” poem from The World, The Worldless, a volume which Oppen helped edit.

               … Lady, if our despair
is to be unable to factor ourselves in song
or factor the world there, what should our joy
be other than this same integer that sings
and mocks at satisfaction?[10]

Bronk’s poem ends with a pronouncement of non-fulfillment and of being held in the void of “whole despair,” where he says the world endures. The final line is: “Lady, sing to this Baby, even so.” Going by his blurb statement for Bronk’s book alone, there can be no doubt of Oppen’s high regard, praising the poems as “a part of the living stream of thought.” The appearance of the Virgin in Oppen’s poem is a reminder that some of the incidents encountered can be finite textual incidents. One word is a finite enough incident.

Bronk’s poem asserts that the singing (Mary’s to Elizabeth that her soul magnifies the Lord) was and is. It was because the Bible (Luke 1:46) says so and is because it becomes the magnificat of later singing in celebrations of faith. Bronk’s “we,” however, cannot define themselves or the world in this song or integer because they don’t have faith. Oppen has faith, though not of any orthodox religious variety. He will allow the Virgin to sing but she has to keep it small, a minificat, and she’s reminded that what matters is thought.

12. “Song, The Winds of Downhill” from Seascape: Needles’s Eye.[11] Although the title puts song first, it again comes last. The beginning posits an art povera, a lack of the “common/wealth of parlance” (the tone and pose of inherited language, the elocution and eloquence enabled by tradition) as a positive starting point. In that condition, words such as “would,” “with,” “and” take on substantial meaning. These are not exactly the small nouns crying faith, but they’re small enough in themselves and in their number. A small tone row. They act as handholds and footholds. The suggestion is of an arduous progress. It is a progress having nothing to do with the residential lots. Rather it goes beyond the already laid out, the “small lawns” of the safe suburbs of what is already known. And it is no kind of ascent or ascension. Significantly, what the poem arrives at in its closing lines is not thought in opposition to song but “a poem / which may be sung / may well be sung.” The poem, even in declaring itself a poem, does not give us the poet “singing” but at least the possibility of singing. There’s been a shift, an accommodation, and an acknowledgement: that a poem can have meaning and be a song; that small words may take on substantial meaning, disclosing presence and being, and be a row of tones; that the valuables may be lyric valuables. This arduous progress beginning in a deprivation of inherited language/tradition can become a poem and be recognized as a poem because it’s singable, may be sung.

13. “The Little Pin: Fragment” from Myth of the Blaze.[12] The poem has a noteworthy headnote: “The journey, fortunately [said the traveler] is truly immense.” (This is Oppen’s slight modification of the last line from Kafka’s “My Destination” in Parables and Paradoxes). The opening of the poem would have us recognize the physical world, finite and empirical with its vectors of rain and wind as a pin, a bare bodkin, acting to puncture human pride and presumption. If history is the record of those things, it punctures history and the assumption that meaning resides in history.

At the close we find “song” but with a question mark and repeated as “astonishing song?” This is the response to those questions:

                             … the world
sometime be

world the wind
be wind o western
wind to speak

              of this

The lineation matters: “the world / sometime be.” The words matter, especially “sometime” as opposed to the more usual and perhaps expected “sometimes” (or Zukofsky’s “some time”). In sometime there can be disclosure of Being, the presence of all those presences and beings that constitute the world. And, as those presences/beings give witness to Presence and Being, the first word of the next line completes a sentence: “the world / sometime be / world.” It does not have to be only a dwindling or shriveling of the heart even as I would hear Oppen’s “sometime” as a lowercase, humbling modification of Heidegger’s metaphysical “Zeit.” This is amplified, musically enough, by “the wind / be wind.” And with another sort of musical amplification, a quotation from the fifteenth-century lyric “O Western Wind.” The lineation breaks up the lyric (o western) — doesn’t discard or destroy it — and connects it with speaking/stating/reporting (wind to speak / of this).

What does this “response” sound like? It sounds astonishing, like no other poetry before it. Or it sounds like Thelonious Monk playing Webern. As language — normative statement language or normative/traditional poetry — it must sound fragmented, fragmentary. We’re back to Heraclitus, with regard to whose fragmentary sayings Havelock remarks: “English and indeed any modern syntax cannot cope with the original compression.”[13] We’re back to the beginnings of philosophy as we’re back to the beginnings of English poetry. It is a poem of statement made to sing or be singable. To adopt a phrase from Celan, it is the “singable remnant.” And it is not merely a remnant as leftover and tattered garment as it is not merely a heap of broken images but rather a new song.

14. Each poem is a journey, a process of thought that comes to song. Each is a journey within a larger, immense journey which, insofar as a mortal traveler is involved, necessarily has death as destination. Each and all amount to much more than an excursion. And each is a song in the very process of that process, however intent the poet may think himself to be on thought. This would seem to answer the question of whether one can sing and think at the same time. But the fullest answer is provided by Oppen himself in his ca. 1975 “Statement On Poetics” as reprinted by Stephen Cope in his edition of the poet’s Selected Prose.[14] What follows is a “musical” restatement of Oppen’s statement. Musical because only some of it is used, because I have substituted “poetry” for Oppen’s “prosody” and “song” for his “music.” It’s something of a minor improvisation.

“And that’s poetry, it is a song but it is a rigorous song — a song that refuses all trumpets, all sweet harmonies, all lusts and emotions that aren’t there, it is a song, quite simply, of image and honest speech — image because image is the moment of conviction.”

“Poetry is a language, but it is a language that tests itself. Or it tests itself in song. … It tests the relations of things; it carries the sequence of disclosure.”

“And actualness is poetry, it is the purpose of poetry and its achievement, the instant of meaning, the achievement of meaning and of presence. …”

“Which means again that the poetry and the ‘philosophy’ cannot be separated …”

15. In sum, as a not minor improviser, Duke Ellington, said: “Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”[15]


This essay was first delivered as remarks for The Shape of Disclosure: George Oppen Centennial Symposium, Tribeca Performing Arts Center, April 8, 2008.

 


 

1. T. S. Eliot, Points of View (New York: Hyperion Press, 1980), 35 and 37.

2. Concise Oxford English Dictionary, ed. Catherine Somes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 770.

3. Martin Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking?, trans. J. Glennora (New York: Harper Perennial, 1976), 244.

4. Plato, “Apology,” in Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett (New York: Easton Press, 2008), 1:335.

5. Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1982), 294 and 289.

6. Havelock, The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 246.

7. Louis Zukofsky, “A Statement for Poetry,” in Prepositions (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 20.

8. George Oppen, New Collected Poems, ed. Michael Davidson (New York: New Directions, 2008), 111 and 113.

9. Ibid., 199.

10. William Bronk, The World, The Worldless (New York: New Directions, 1964), 19.

11. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 220.

12. Oppen, New Collected Poems, 254.

13. Havelock, 241.

14. Oppen, Selected Prose, Daybooks and Papers, ed. Stephen Cope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 49.

15. Duke Ellington, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (New York: Brunswick Record Corporation, #6265, 1932).