Articles

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).

Approaching Taggart chapel

Ritual, Rothko, and poetic form

Detail from the cover of a French translation of Taggart’s ‘Le Poèm de la Chapelle Rothko’ (Editions Royaumont, 1990).

We in the West, Lou Reed once complained, are denied our ritual, a complaint which is itself a kind of ritual, within art culture and perhaps more broadly, that has been practiced with dramatic results throughout the recent history of poetry and art in the West. Admittedly, the ritual Reed mourned the lack of was a particular one, that of hari-kari, so spectacularly performed, in what was then recent memory, by the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, having just addressed members of his private army from a banner-draped balustrade. But Reed’s was only a late adumbration of a lament that is at the heart of many of the enduring monuments of modernism: we in the West are denied our ritual. This could be the founding myth of more than one twentieth-century art culture: there was a ritual world, it no longer is, or if it is, it is in bits, alive among the mad and the preliterate, and could be reimagined, and this is what art could do, what art culture could be: a fully operative symbolic system for an elite if not the full cast of social life. And at the heart of this ritual world, its words, practices, and shiny objects, was magical thinking. There is of course an immense range of analysis and speculation attending the word “ritual,” a word crucial to twentieth-century critical thought. Here, beginning my approach to the entrance of Taggart chapel, I can only attempt to work with the simplest sense I can find, the notion that highly organized repeated symbolic actions can effect events.

For poetry written in the emerging world of the modern, the analysis of ritual, of the beliefs that make ritual possible, of the form by which rituals make themselves felt, of what that feeling might be, and most especially of the transformation within the participants that ritual practice could provoke, could not help but be of deep interest, crucial concern, really, for practitioners of an art form with tradition running deep into the pre-Copernican world of cosmic correspondences, not to mention the renewed authority granted by anthropology, psychology, and occultism to word-magic. Moreover, with the restructuring of daily life accompanying the rise of urban secular life, with the shaping of selfhood that has been said to attend the birth of the modern, where else so much as in a sophisticated grasp of what a ritually informed artistic practice might mean, could one see, and dramatize, the full arc of incarnation, from birth to death and whatever might once have been or still be beyond? Behind romantic, symbolist, and modern poetry’s interest in the theory and practice of ritual, spurred by the discoveries of archeology, lay the tantalizing possibilities of the full force of ancient drama, recovered, including the choral poetry Nietzsche describes in The Birth of Tragedy: “The virgins who proceed solemnly to the temple of Apollo, laurel branches in their hands, singing a processional hymn, remain what they are and retain their civic names: the dithyrambic chorus is a chorus of transformed characters whose civic past and social status have been totally forgotten: they have become timeless servants of their god …”[1]


1. The temple

While much might be said about the presumed power of poetic cadence in this quotation, about the radical schism between the everyday and the divine which incantation might be seen as able to momentarily overcome, even more might be said about the promise of inner transformation of those who chant dithyrambically as one, a promise fervently reiterated in the twentieth century across a range of arts. For now I simply want to note the fact that a temple is mentioned, a temple towards which the celebrants proceed. The columns, the open, geometric spaces, perhaps like what might still be seen in Turkey, at the temple of Apollo in Dydima, once the prophecy vortex of the ancient world, mark a socially sanctioned space for acts of ritual magic. The temple orders earth and sky to reflect meaning on a human scale. In a temple, pillars and squares are all heights and all horizons. At a key moment in modernity’s pondering of the repurposing of outmoded forms of ritual the link between ritual thought and shape became a matter of artistic abstraction. Matisse knew his Mallarme; Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Malevich developed an idiom of pure shape and color through which abstraction could show the presence and power of the unseen world. In the middle of the last century Abstract Expressionism brought this ambition into the art culture of New York. The paintings of Mark Rothko, a lifelong devotee of The Birth of Tragedy, illustrate the path from the mythic to the abstract, from Surrealism’s deep interest in the worlds of classical ruins and modern fetish dolls, to an art free of all vulgar mimesis, where might finally be brought to reside “the Spirit of Myth which is generic to all myths of all times.”[2]

Rothko explicitly presented his work within the conventions of the evolving literary aesthetics of the thirties and forties as spiritual, as if his basic materials, canvas and paint, could be the exact meeting place of the finite with the infinite. Recalling his debt to Arshile Gorky, we can imagine this meeting as suffused with the glamour of immense suffering. “I have been painting Greek temples all this time and didn’t know it,” Rothko remarked on a tour of Pompei in Italy.[3] And we might add, given the dark tone his painting would take in later years, he has been imagining Greek theater, and the dramas performed there, all that time, though he was too prone to dread and despair to say he didn’t know it. The opportunity came to Rothko, late in his career, to design a Catholic chapel. It was a challenge artistically and architecturally, but also spiritually. The murals for the Rothko chapel would become a massive theological undertaking, done exclusively in shape and color and architecture, aiming to do nothing less than shift the spiritual orientation of Houston, Texas, from Rome, to Basel, and to points beyond. Through his warring with the architect Philip Johnson, he reshaped the walls and roof and floor into a structure that could be a place for secular, or should we say post-secular, ritual. Rothko forced Johnson off the project, and the chapel, no longer on the grounds of a Catholic college, in its final version more closely resembled a structure in Israel that holds the Dead Sea scrolls. It would be filled with panels that Michel Butor likened to the Ka’ba. Though the result is hardly an interfaith center. The Rothko chapel was to be first and foremost an omphalos for midcentury existentially minded art cultures, set, almost perversely, in Houston, a city of oil and space technology, and opened, with the chapel’s completion, to a current of thanatos pouring down from an artist’s studio on the upper east side of Manhattan. Rothko’s true commission was to make palpable in line and color what a devotional space might look like for a belief system built upon fundamental colors, red and black, colors recalling for one critic “the blood and fire purification of old ritual.”[4] The series of panels inside, distinctive within the span of all Rothko’s work for their sharp clean delineation of his squares and for their monochrome color scheme, were designed to transform the inner world of the art pilgrim who had fled the Babylon of 57th Street in a craving for tragic exaltation.

But the modern pilgrim will not find the Rothko chapel paintings arranged to reflect any meditative progress like stations in a traditional pilgrimage, though some have read them, in that there are fourteen panels, as reminiscent of the Catholic stations of the cross, as if Rothko were nodding towards his fellow abstractionist, rival, and Jew, Barnett Newman. John Taggart, a poet I take to be exceedingly mindful of the vast project of reinventing devotional practice in the bright world of nihilism that follows Nietzsche, finds in the Rothko chapel a perpetual but imperceptible crucifixion, one with no lash, crown, cape, ridicule, hammer, nail, or bereft mother, no overt sign of the death of God, except, we might suppose, in looking at the paintings, the red blood streaming from the wounds of Christ and the black, the sky at the moment of his expiration. No cross is seen in the Rothko chapel, though Taggart finds them in the gaps between canvasses. The icon persists within its own absence. Perhaps simply so we can feel without mediation how we are, in Merleau Ponti’s phrase, “grafted to the universal by that which is most our own.”[5]

Taggart’s evocations of Rothko, both poetic and critical, are a liturgical drama for a world where Christianity is over (though perhaps Nathaniel Mackey’s phrase “liturgical ambush” might be more accurate). The texts in his “The Rothko Chapel Poem” are scripts for a total artwork built on the story of the dissolution of the needy, quotidian self in an exceedingly dark ecstasy. Both the poem and the chapel itself are a highly ordered art experience that connive with fanatical focus and bring about to all who enter what Dore Ashton would call, in her book on Rothko, the “psychological conditions for religiousness.”[6] That is what the magical practice of art might bring about. This art experience offered to us in the Rothko chapel is not undifferentiated intensity (for visitors who might experience their own unworthiness as boredom) but comes to us in stages, or in Taggart’s term from the poem, movements. For Sheldon Nodelman, in a work that could stand as a visionary exegesis of the entirety of the chapel, every blueprint, every work order, every pour of concrete argues that the viewer is led through three stages of aesthetic perception where, to crudely summarize here, the play of verticals and horizontals between the black figure paintings on the four directional walls of the chapel and the monochromes on the angle walls, and the complex progress of perception of red and black (and the undisclosed blue, the traditional color of the eternal, added to the red for the shades of violet in the monochromes), of seeing both vertically and rotationally, constitute a fully coherent meditation on fundamental axes of existence, the eternal and the temporal.[7] While I will not be entering the full text of Taggart’s “The Rothko Chapel Poem” today, I can’t help but think the play of scale, direction, and the intense mirroring of Taggart’s stanzas draw not simply on the chapel and its paintings, but also on an exactly worked-out ritual practice Rothko devised for his own vernacular religiousness. Certainly the final text of “The Rothko Chapel Poem,” with its vision of leaving the chapel and seeing earth and sky suffused with fiery blood, lends credence to the suggestion that Taggart, too, is rethinking the possibility of ritual experience, and that the process of reading the poem is meant to initiate us into a world of Dionysian anguish and ecstasy.


2. Slow song

In reading Taggart’s Rothko texts one could disavow all notions of fate and yet feel driven to ask, could such a poet as John Taggart ever not answer the call to sound out the hollows of the Rothko chapel? In Taggart’s account of the birth of his own style, he is careful to tell us that Rothko looms not as a formal exemplar, or as the iconographer of purest angst, but as a figure who appears almost haphazardly, naively beckoned as the result of the poet’s concern with the properties of stained glass. A telling remark that locates Taggart at the intersection of craft and devotional cultures, and of course the difficult relation of modern art cultures to the aestheticized Medievalism of the symbolists and the pre-Copernican cosmology embedded in European, Arabic, and Persian poetic traditions. The glass is “a mystery, it glows without fire or heat, it proves the power of light as embodied spirit.”[8] Rothko, according to Taggart, manages to create the effect of a “hidden light source,”[9] and here we sense Taggart’s own allegiance to the light mysticism embedded in the English Metaphysical tradition. A statement of Rothko’s will provides something of an essential dogma for the poet to shape into song: “it is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again.” With this line Taggart fashions perhaps the earliest and the fullest first achievement of his signature reiterative method. In “A Slow Song for Mark Rothko” Taggart strikes a decidedly ritual and devotional stance towards reality, and as we are momentarily here in the neighborhood of projective verse, it’s worth noting how Rothko’s statement embeds and revises, through contextualization, projectivist poetics. (Or am I alone in hearing the quick breaths of Olsonian recitation in the phrase “it is really a matter … of breathing and stretching one’s arms” in which Taggart has noticed crisis “ending this silence and solitude” and repetition: “again”?[10])

In “A Preface” collected in Songs of Degrees (where he discusses the writing of “A Slow Song for Mark Rothko”), Rothko steps into the evolving world of Taggart’s poetics as the avatar not just of embodied light, or even of music (Messiaen and Grosseteste are soon mentioned), but of ritual itself. Famously adverse in later years to theorizing his art, Rothko falls silent here, and Stephen Reich speaks. For both Taggart and Reich, working in the postmodern moment, transformation is nonetheless still the goal of art. For Reich, as it will for Taggart throughout all his reiterative works, that transformation begins with the slow shifting of attention. Note in Reich’s statement the emphasis on the power of a slow song to rearrange the mental universe: “Listening to a gradual musical process,” Reich says, “one can participate in a particularly liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible the shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards (or inwards) towards it.”[11]

That “he or she” Reich imagines is most likely not a couple that has decided to get married in the Rothko chapel, though the method of Taggart’s poem might suggest exactly that. And the wedding waltz Taggart stages in the Rothko chapel could hardly be the music Reich imagines, which works like a form of tantric practice, to purify and elevate the attention of an isolated listener. A wedding waltz is to move a group of unfocused celebrants into a dance, but of course it is a part of the intense, dare one say Kierkegaardian, irony at work — that the true music to be heard in the Taggart chapel, which through the magic of ritual form comes to exist within the Rothko chapel, is that of blackest solitude and wandering, exile, death, and anguished rebirth. For Reich, whose notion of a slow song here could stand as a gloss for Taggart’s poetic ambition in his reiterative structures, the musical process occurs simultaneously within and without. The goal of the ritual is, for Reich, the contemplation of its own process, its own organized, symbolically rich path which offers the listener liberation. For Taggart, such a liberation, as it occurs within “The Rothko Chapel Poem” as nowhere else in his work, comes as a perpetual Calgary, a Passion, a hymn of divine suffering. But as readers only just climbing the steps of the textual temple, we might be forgiven for not noticing that the multiple reiterative epigrams for the poem are taken from Fear and Trembling, from an author, that is, dear to both Rothko and Taggart, and for having no real clue that the agonized coming to be is the ritual process the poem has in store for us, for who among us would willingly take up an agony? After all, we are welcomed guests, guests at a wedding.


3. Wedding guests

The opening three sections of Taggart’s poem set before us the most traditional of functions to be performed in a chapel: a wedding. While the origin of this wedding tableaux may be an overheard remark rich beyond measure in suggestion about wedding pictures taken in the Rothko chapel where the paintings all appear black, Taggart’s foregrounding of nuptials is an immediate comment on a space that seems designed for the single contemplative. (The model for the chapel’s interior, it has been argued, is the artist’s studio.) Taggart’s choice to stage a wedding speaks specifically as well to the poet’s own interest in forms of ritual, as is evident to anyone familiar with his poems about gospel music, soul, and jazz. Taggart needs to write at some proximity to actual communal practice.

Taggart’s remarks on “A Slow Song for Mark Rothko” reveal his early concern with ritual. In “Were You: Notes & A Poem for Michael Palmer”[12] Taggart pursues his thinking on this issue, moving beyond the matter of the effect upon consciousness of ritual practice, to the matter of ritual communities, in this instance, to American Protestant ceremonial culture. He frets about the nature of the group, and the place of dissenting individuals within it. Taggart finds in the example of gospel music severe polarities that recall Nietzsche’s opposition of the Apollonian lyric with the Dionysian dithyramb. An irresolvable conflict lies at the heart of Taggart’s musings about gospel music, about the relation of the many to the one, and about what conditions of belief must be present for the choral singer to enter into the song without doubt. Those familiar with Taggart’s other works may suspect that this conflict goes beyond this particular subject, that Taggart is an agonist, drawn to imagining and overcoming fundamental oppositions. “You can’t doubt and sing with abandon,”[13] the poet tells us. And what kind of musical structure must exist that can accommodate a “diversified assembly”?[14] There is a severity in Taggart’s distinctions between the individual and the group that resolve themselves in his notion of the gap. This gap is both, it would seem, a part of musical structure and a way to contain multiplicity within unity. In various descriptions of his poetic method in regard to his reiterative poems Taggart has noted what must be a fraught moment in his compositional practice: the appearance of a gap, and the addition of an anomalous word within the gap, within the tightly controlled repetitions. Taggart clearly, at least at the time of the composition of the poems in Loop, invested considerable hope in the possibility of a structural relation between poetic form and ritual efficacy.

 In the Rothko chapel poem, however, Taggart pursues the severity at the heart of his either/or conception of ceremonial culture. As the wedding triptych itself demonstrates, Taggart is in the grip of an immense drama that compels him to examine the fate of those disinvited from the wedding, a disinvitation which retains all the allegorical implications that might be expected, though it goes on to tell a tale of death and rebirth.


4. The welcome

Ultimately, Taggart draws our attention not so much to the bride or groom, but foremost to the greeting, the welcoming. It is within the logic of minimalist reduction that both Rothko and Taggart share the single moment of human contact, of human warmth, connectivity, and evocation of living ritual form. Humanity enters to the touch of welcome. Given Rothko’s early and possibly playful statement that the relation between painting and viewer should be nuptial as well, citing nothing less than Shakespeare’s “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,”[15] we might almost be in the world of color and mystery of Rothko’s pre-chapel work. One can sense in those earlier paintings an erotics embedded in perception itself, but the poem is careful, in keeping both with the formality of the place and the severity of the idiom Rothko devised in planning out his chapel, to distance us from the loving embrace of bride and groom. We are not ever one embraced by the other, but touched by them both, taken in hand. One might almost say that this welcoming is the very protagonist of the poem as it proceeds down the via dolorosa of the contemporary post-secular moment. We are cordially taken into a communal gathering, though we will soon feel ourselves become merely the occasion of the greeting, an occasion that calls up an immense nostalgia in the depths of the poem proper, a moment of a union not of bride and groom with each other but of bride and groom with us. We are implicitly threefold, for as long as the welcome lasts.

 


 

1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and The Case of Wagner (Vintage Books, 1967), 64.

2. Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Rothko (Taschen, 2003), 34.

3. Dore Ashton, About Rothko (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 147.

4. Ibid., 155.

5. Merleau-Ponty, quoted in ibid., 123.

6. Ibid, 177.

7. Sheldon Nodelman, The Rothko Chapel Paintings: Origin, Structure, Meaning (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997). Chapter 3, “The Meaning of the Chapel Instillation,” is especially helpful for thinking about Taggart’s poem. In particular, see Nodelman’s description of the “phenomenal structure of the installation,” 324–331.

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

9. Dianne Waldman, quoted in ibid., 71.

10. Mark Rothko, quoted in ibid., 71.

11. Steven Reich, quoted in ibid., 73.

12. Taggart, Loop (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1991).

13. Ibid., 80.

14. Ibid., 83.

15. Baal-Teshuva, Rothko, 7.

'Giant Steps': John Taggart's sheets of sound and messianic jazz

With special reference to Theodor Adorno

“How to stay alive” or, repetition

“To become aware of tones // beginner’s problem in the mind of a beginner.” The opening to John Taggart’s 2008 homage to Louis Zukofsky, “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” reaffirms the abiding concern of Taggart’s poetics from first to last: how to think with and in sound. This concern manifests itself throughout his work, but is perhaps most notable in such major jazz- and R&B-inspired poems like “Drum Thing” (1969), “Giant Steps” and “Peace on Earth” (1981), “Marvin Gaye Suite” (1991), and 2004’s “Rhythm and Blues Singer,” his elegy for R&B singer James Carr, where he writes:

Language before writing

 before reading

 before the alphabet

 acoustic

 river

 a river of sound[1]

 

The acoustic river runs throughout Taggart’s work and one of its most important tributaries is jazz.

When Taggart recalls that he “came to jazz just as I was,” he is describing a beginner’s state of mind: that fragile, requisite naïveté which makes poetic listening possible. In jazz, he notes, “what is to be asked for is how to stay alive.”[2] The problem of jazz, then, is the problem of life. As Jennifer Ryan puts it: “jazz poetry accounts for the complexities and contradictions of both artistic innovation and social inequities.”[3] Taggart’s moral imperative to stay alive, that is, to live free of social coercion, takes its cue from the music of John Coltrane, whose restless drive to push past  boundaries alienated some listeners even as it signaled to others the beginning of a musical revolution whose implications were felt socially as well. What he was after in jazz, Taggart writes, was “the rhythmic character of the music … not a jazz poem … [it] would have to start from and go away from jazz.”[4] The beginning of faith always entails a little heresy. Though jazz was his “informing source,” his place of worshipful attention (“Composition,” he declares, echoing Malebranche, “is attention”), Taggart realizes he must move past mere emulation into what he calls “the animal power of voice.” Paradoxically, this reveals the powerlessness of his own voice through a realization of the necessity to submit to the voice of the poem, “the voice which eats the face away,” as he puts it in an unexpectedly violent trope. What jazz comes to mean for Taggart, finally, is “learning and leaning in more intently in listening to be able to write.”[5]

The question driving my inquiry has to do with how Taggart’s poem “Giant Steps” fuses the modalities of Coltrane’s late modernist jazz with an Objectivist emphasis on sound to create a poetry of radical repetition that is also deeply messianic, a poetry committed to the problem of “how to stay alive” which is the problem of how to intervene in the dehumanizing forces of history, how to rescue the person caught within the riptide of history. By radical repetition I mean a form of writing whose excessive use of refrain and reiteration creates a musical ex-scription, a poetry that writes outside the traditional methods of meaning production through its disruptive use of sound. Radical repetition undoes the usual aim of language as a conveyor of semantic stability by pushing against the grain of transparent meaning toward a semiotic music. Repetition is not simply repeating; rather, it’s what makes the poem stay alive.

Taggart’s poetry is at once utterly transparent and deeply thing-like. It is highly accessible in the sense that it does not exhibit aggressive syntactical torque; neither is it marked by patterns of complex allusion commonly associated with difficulty. Taggart’s difficulty is different. Irresistibly rhythmic, it’s almost childlike in its compulsive insistence on repetition, yet at the same time virtually opaque. Here is the first stanza of “Giant Steps”:

To want to be a saint to want to be a saint to want to

 to want to be a saint to be the snake-tailed one to want to

 be snake-tailed with wings to be a snake-tailed saint with wings to

 want to be a saint to want to awaken men from nightmare.[6]

 

The first section of Taggart’s poem is divided into two stanzas, the first consisting of four lines, the second of five (this pattern holds for the other three sections as well). Taggart’s diction is severely limited here. The first stanza contains a total of fifty-eight words, with “saint” occurring five times; “want” seven times; and, in the spirit of the Objectivists, “to” sixteen times. These three words account for twenty-eight of the fifty-eight words in the first four lines, or roughly half of all the words in the stanza. Likewise, in the second stanza, “dance” and “go” are each used eight times; “down” six times;  “steps” five times; and  “to” eighteen times, for a total of forty-five occurrences of five words out of seventy-three, or over two-thirds of the overall word count. Taggart leverages a maximal degree of poetic energy from an amazingly minimal means. What significance is there, though, to working in such a vein, other than the yield of dramatic power it grants the poem? And can we be sure that such repetition does in fact yield the power I argue for it here? Or does it merely succumb to a numbing monotony?

Taggart’s innovative use of repetition derives from a heuristic set of principles. “Not to reproduce a sound but to use it as a general principle to make another sound,”[7] he writes, noting Augustine’s stress on repetition as a pedagogical device: “a mode of assuring the seeker that he is on his way, and is not merely wandering blindly through the chaos from which all forms arises.”[8] Gilles Deleuze provides a resonant echo to these observations when he writes that:

To repeat is to behave in a certain manner, but in relation to something unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent. And perhaps this repetition at the level of external conduct echoes, for its own part, a more secret vibration which animates it, a more profound internal repetition within the singular.[9]

What is crucial for Taggart’s sense of repetition is that it produces difference, not identity. To repeat a phrase, a word, a line is not to collapse or narrow distinctions between the terms of repetition and the rest of the poem. On the contrary, it is to open up a space of difference, which is, simply, figured as space itself, as a caesura, an intervention into the poem’s temporal scheme, the way it measures time and generates duration. The messianic splice of repetition, in other words, distends the poem. Elastic with tension, it drives an arc of sound along the narrow wire of song. What significance is there, though, to such dynamic constriction? The goal of repetition in Taggart is immersion into lived time. Felt time. Time as actual, tangible, passing. In his interview with Ornette Coleman, Jacques Derrida makes the case that the act of music, like the act of writing, is a unique, unreproducable event which is:

Nevertheless repeated in its very structure. Thus there is a repetition, in the work, that is intrinsic to the initial creation — that which compromises or complicates the concept of improvisation. Repetition is already in improvisation: thus when people want to trap you between improvisation and the pre-written, they are wrong.[10]

To which Coleman eloquently responds: “Repetition is as natural as the fact that the earth rotates.” The impulse to repeat also drives the work of John Coltrane.


Along a line of melody: Coltrane’s sound

In a fit of pique once after a recording session, Miles Davis demanded of Coltrane: “why did you go on so long?” “It took me that long to get it all in,” replied Coltrane.[11] This well-known anecdote gets to the heart of Coltrane’s core aesthetic. As he himself expressed it to Nat Hentoff, “You just keep going … you keep trying to get right down to the crux.”[12] This is Taggart’s method, too: a desire to keep the thing aloft, continuous, in a restless quest for breakthrough. The goal may be transcendent, but the means are material. Archie Schepp, who played in Coltrane’s late avant-garde groups, observes that Trane’s method was predicated on a kind of music possessing a hitherto unthinkable range of expansion; solos would run for thirty, forty minutes; it would be uninterrupted music, continually evolving, continually seeking out the terms of its logic.

In his chapter on the thriving subgenre of jazz poetry devoted to Coltrane’s music, Sascha Feinstein mentions Taggart only by noting the issue of his journal, Maps (1969), which was devoted to poems for Coltrane. In a footnote, however, he does see fit to cite Taggart’s unease about the potential for such a tribute issue becoming “a collection of aesthetic and sterile games.” Taggart concludes that “it’s a risk worth taking: you could even say it’s demanded from this liberty to hear, to make what we can from it, as evidence that John Coltrane’s music is still very much with us.”[13] Maps no. 3 appeared only two years after Coltrane’s death, at the age of forty, from liver failure. By 2002, jazz scholar David Ake can write with perfect confidence that Coltrane “has become a remarkably powerful figure,” one whose name has assumed an auratic status, signifying “a variety of musical, ethical, and spiritual attributes,” many of which are only loosely connected to Coltrane the person.[14] As Ake, Ben Ratliff, and others have pointed out, “Giant Steps,” which signaled Trane’s major breakthrough, has become ensconced in jazz pedagogy to the degree that mastering its rapid chord changes signifies every apprentice sax player’s rite of passage.

It’s important to understand Coltrane’s accomplishment in relation to the modal jazz pioneered by Davis, which emphasized improvisation within a framework of austerity. As Ted Gioia puts it, “it was a minimalist response to the maximalist tendencies of postwar jazz.”[15] But while Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” (released in 1959, the same year as Davis’s Kind of Blue) develops within a tight chord progression and Taggart’s poem adheres to the same sense of constraint, using and reusing the same set of keywords, there is nothing minimalist, in the usual sense, about either composition. Rather, minimalist constraints become the springboard for explorations of excess. Both works are overflowing, rich with a “too-muchness,” an abundance that pushes the listener/reader past the limits of the well-made object into an unmapped region of aesthetic experience, the place where snake-tailed saint, a messianic Quetzcoatl, dances.

As Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux explain, “Giant Steps” “is a sixteen-bar composition in which almost every note of the melody is signaled by a new chord — playing the chord changes is practically the same thing as playing the melody. The harmony extends the chord progression between equally distant tonal centers (the giant steps of the title). The aim of its aggressively fast-paced movement is “to trigger a sheets-of-sound jolt.”[16] Around the time Coltrane recorded “Giant Steps,” Wayne Shorter came to know him. Shorter speaks of Coltrane’s desire “to speak the English language backwards, and not really in a playful way. It was, like, to speak backwards, to get at something else. To break patterns.”[17]

Unlike Coltrane’s later elegy “Alabama,” for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed five black girls, nothing about “Giant Steps” per se suggests it was ever intended as an anthem of civil rights. Yet its bold innovation, which marks it as a milestone in the history of jazz, has invited other writers besides Taggart to see it as more than a musical watershed. Kevin Young, who named his 2000 anthology of African-American writers “Giant Steps,” declares that his title “pays homage to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps — which … changed the way we hear and see.”[18] Michael S. Harper, Amiri Baraka, and Nathaniel Mackey are perhaps the most prominent among a large number of chiefly African American poets who have paid similar homage to Coltrane’s influence. “Giant Steps” (both the composition and the album) announces an inaugural moment for a new form of music, the articulation of a new set of possibilities for expression. Chord progression signals social activism. As Eric Nisenson puts it: “Giant Steps is, in a sense, a manifesto. Modern jazz had hit a dead end … but with the title tune, the bop technique of playing melodically over complex harmonic structures … was taken to its final extreme.”[19] In her brilliant and far-ranging discussion of the Coltrane poem genre, Meta DuEwa Jones affirms the tenor’s significance for poets: “Music frees the soul, is soul. Poetic forms that are influenced by music, like the Coltrane poem, seek to transcend the boundaries of speech and music to inhabit the intangible realms of the spiritual, the emotional, and the soulful.”[20] John Taggart’s “Giant Steps” attempts a similar transcendence of ordinary speech. Like Coltrane, he wants to break patterns, triggering his own sheets of sound effect, through the rhythmic jolts of the poem’s oceanic repetitions.

This repetition can come across not merely as mesmerizing, but exhausting; it makes extreme demands of its reader. The severity of this demand takes its cue not only from Coltrane’s desire to “break patterns” by pushing the music to the limit of what it can bear, but from Zukofsky’s intricate and disciplined attention to the play of sound in the poem. Zukofsky’s famous injunction for rendering the poem as an object required the rejection of any predatory intent, any coercion of language by sentiment. Sincerity, a slippery, often misleading, term in this context, meant that the poem must be a record, in part, of the encounter with phenomenon, achieved, Zukofsky writes, by “thinking with the things as they exist … directing them along a line of melody.”[21] In his essay on Zukofsky’s “Songs of Degrees,” Taggart elaborates:

A melody is a continuous movement that is always on its way. It is not the sum of its component sound details but is the progress of the moving line passing through the successive sounds. In Zukofsky’s usage, however, melody is both the continuously moving line as it grows and defines itself in the concatenation of word sound detail, and it is the completed structure or form that is the culmination and the memory of that motion. It is both noun and verb … above all it has to be understood that meaning, like its melody, exists in the words, and that the two are inextricable.[22]

Zukofsky puts it more succinctly in A Test of Poetry: “cadence plus definite language equal the full meaning.”[23] In “Song of Degrees” the cadence is powerful: “Hear, her / Clear mirror, / Care / His error. / In her / Care / Is clear.”[24] What Taggart concludes in this important statement on poetics is highly characteristic of him: the animating principle of Zukofsky’s poetry is “care,” a word that denotes the technical nuances of attention as much as the ethical imperatives of compassion. “Care, then use, are the lessons to be learned. Otherwise, reading serves only to distract us from perception.”[25]. The Objectivist emphasis on immediacy here means cultivating a sensitivity to perception, not so much in the hope of erasing the medium of transmission, which in any case would be impossible, but out of a disciplined approach to its impact on the senses, the intellect, and language, conceived of melodically, that is, in its semiotic rather than semantic register.[26]


Toward a poetics of the standing wave or, messianic jazz

Taggart insists that “the history of poetry in our century is only superficially the history of the struggle to make it new. More enduring is the struggle to regain the definition of poetry as spiritual ascesis.”[27] To accomplish this, poets can either immerse themselves in spiritual literature, he suggests, or immerse themselves in language. The latter method has been Taggart’s primary one. As Marjorie Perloff, writing on Rosmarie Waldrop, notes: “the language pool” has become “the new Spiritus Mundi.”[28] In her introduction to Taggart’s essays, Perloff describes Taggart’s poetry as one of rapture, achieved not through visionary trance, but with “an intricate incantation produced by permutating sounds and silences.”[29] This effect is on full display in Taggart’s “Giant Steps.”

“Giant Steps” is a poem that dreams of — and urges — a breakthrough. This breakthrough is induced by rhetorical means — through internal anaphora.

To want to be a saint to want to be a saint to want to

 be a snake-tailed saint with wings to leap upon the horse-headed the

 blue-eyed woman with the little moon the woman with nine shadows

 who chokes the throat to want to be a saint to wake men from nightmare.[30]

 

To speak of breakthrough, that elusive and rhetorically abused state of rupture and metanoia, means, in Taggart’s case, to speak of a formal methodology that draws from the materiality of repeated words and phrases. The effect induces a kind of lucid vertigo.  The poem becomes an elaborate echo chamber where speech regains its vibrant immediacy, its saying of the now, through call and response, song and countersong.

This emphasis on the instant of song makes it interruptive rather than reflective. Taggart’s poem forces us to rethink what we thought we knew about the relationship between the materiality — or acoustic properties — of the word, and the effects it generates, which we tend to call spiritual but in fact have more to with an experience of embodiment. This acoustic power takes on a messianic charge, in the sense defined by Walter Benjamin. It blasts apart conventional modes of listening. Conceived of as a kind of punctum or caesura, messianic poetics aims to produce an experience of what Benjamin calls “now-time” through a sharp intervention that destroys the illusion of continuity fostered by historicism’s efforts to fold the past seamlessly into the present.

A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes a cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history.[31]

Cessation and blasting are classic expressions of the modernist call to revolution and belong to what Peter Osborne calls “a form of avant-garde experience.” As he explains it, delineating Benjamin’s notion of “now-time,” “the avant-garde is that which, in the flash of the dialectical image, disrupts the linear time-consciousness of progress in such a way as to enable us, like the child, to discover the new anew and along with it, the possibility of a better future.”[32] For Benjamin, the messianic is not so much a practical political strategy for devising ideal forms of national statehood, as it is a drastic incursion into the amnesia of historical reification. To free history from the myths the present constructs around it is the key task of messianic poetics, as Benjamin envisions it. This is what it means “to raise men with a horn / a tenor horn to go to go down to raise men from nightmare.”[33]

A messianic poetics stakes its claim for intervening in historical consciousness on the power of song to rescue experience. The experience, as Taggart might say, is the song.

To go down to raise to go down to raise to go to go down the

 ladder to go down as taught as dance steps taught by the master as

 taught to dance to step-dance to dance with giant steps to go to dance to

 step-dance to dance with giant steps as taught by the master to

 dance to go down the ladder to go down to raise men from nightmare[34]

 

In his study of the fold, Deleuze says that “the problem is not how to finish a fold, but how to continue it, to have it go through the ceiling, how to bring it to infinity.”[35] The task of the fold is self-perpetuation ad infinitum, but within a finite space. This kind of folding, this iterative poetics of repetition and intervention, is what both Coltrane and Taggart are striving for. The song, the poem, both fold over on themselves, turning inside out, rushing with a headlong momentum into a process of endless self-resembling replication. Ira Gitler’s now talismanic phrase “sheets of sound,” first used in his liner notes to 1958’s Soultrane to describe Coltrane’s “Russian Lullaby,” the album’s final track, answers to this idea of the fold. Later, Gitler expanded on this phrase, describing Coltrane’s sheets of sound as “a density of texture [in which the] multi-note improvisations were so thick and complex [that they produced] a continuous flow of ideas without stopping.”[36] Folding, sheeting — these actions are key to Taggart’s poetics which might, after the title of one of his more taxing works, be called a poetics of the standing wave.

A standing wave occurs when a wave remains in a constant, or stationary, position, usually as a result of an oppositional flow to the medium it is traveling through. Picture an oscillating wave of water in a small pool where the energy of the wave does not dissipate, but remains constant. Or the two ends of a jump rope being spun or twirled in such a way that the rope appears stationary. This kind of vibration can only occur at specific harmonic frequencies. It is a powerful metaphor for Taggart — the idea of a deeper stillness or stasis generated within an energetic motion.

For Peter O’Leary, one of Taggart’s most perceptive readers (and the editor of his selected poems, Is Music) this deeper stillness of the standing wave is mystical. In his provocative reading of “Peace on Earth,” another Coltrane-based composition dating from the same period as “Giant Steps,” he calls Taggart’s poetics a form of “language mysticism, something akin to the via negativa or apophasis of Christian mystics.” Taggart, writes O’Leary, “uses the sound of words to erode or undermine their meaning, allowing the words to transcend into a hypostatic realm of Word, capitalized.”[37]

O’Leary identifies the goal of Taggart’s poetics as one in which “the discovery of voice … is also the generation of a new spiritual knowledge, a new theology of the Word of God, centered on the sound rather than the lexical meaning of the word.”[38] Zukofsky himself gestures toward this in his tantalizingly elliptical remarks in “An Objective”:  “A poem. A poem as object … Perfect rest — Or nature as creator, existing perfect, experience perfecting activity of existence, making it — theologically perhaps — like the Ineffable.”[39] The trouble with an overdetermined term like hypostasis, however, is that it substantiates its claim to authority on an extra-linguistic “something” — the Word of God — a word that is not a word at all, since it is entirely unmarked by the sound of language as such.[40] To emphasize sound over lexicality does not, ipso facto, move the poem into the realm of hypostasis. For what can be under song? The most obvious answer is: the body; the human voice. To hypostasize the poem is to reify logos, the very charge Theodor Adorno levels at Martin Heidegger, accusing him of trafficking in a “jargon of authenticity” in which “that which is empty becomes an arcanum: the mystery of being permanently in ecstasy over some numinous thing which is preserved in silence.”[41] Moreover, it’s not clear how Taggart’s poetry is negational. Unlike, say, a contemporary such as Michael Palmer, who has made tropes of silence and erasure central to his poetics, Taggart’s poetry is boldly and unequivocally affirmative: cataphatic rather than apophatic. That said, Taggart clearly writes against the grain of semantic transmission in order to break through conventional signifying.

To say that “it is language which speaks, not the author,” as Barthes does (echoing Heidegger), may be merely to shift logos from a theological to an a-theological register, but it’s nevertheless an important move since it frees the spiritual poem from the idol of transcendence and returns it to the material world and the body, to the site of actual, rather than imagined, experience, cognition and struggle.[42] My reading of Taggart is perhaps not significantly different from O’Leary’s and may be no more than a quibble, just another instance in the poetry world of the narcissism of small differences. But if Taggart is a spiritual poet (and he is) his spirituality, as I read it, is messianic — on the way to God, waiting in the hope of a God who may be and who may come, as Richard Kearney puts it. For Kearney, the eschatological God replaces the onto-theological God. The former, he writes, “possibilizes our world from out of the future, from the hoped-for eschaton.”[43] This messianic god is defined by desire rather than presence. “To want to be a saint” is more important than actually being a saint (whatever that may be). Taggart’s posture here calls to mind Tarrou’s eloquent ambition in Camus’s The Plague: “Can one be a saint without God? — that’s the problem, in fact the only problem I’m up against today.”[44] To quest for a God who comes after God, a post-metaphysical God, a weak God whose potential for redemption manifests itself more as possibility than an actuality, is more powerful than a God who merely is, static and inert, absolute and sovereign.[45]

O’Leary’s reading may over-rely on its appeal to hypostasis, but it also goes far beyond that, seeing in Taggart’s work a compelling instance of breath movement drawn from Pseudo-Dionysius’s tract on negative theology, The Divines Names, and Coltrane’s practice of circular breathing, “a technique of playing the saxophone … in which the player maintains a steady impulse of air moving through the horn,” even on the in-breath, so that the horn is continually issuing sound.[46] This kind of circular breathing finds a parallel in the yogic breath cycling practiced by the Eastern Orthodox sect of hesychasts, the most well-known example of which is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer, familiar to readers of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (and indeed, to readers of O’Leary’s own incandescent poetry, which draws from The Philokalia), and elaborated on in the anonymously authored Russian text, The Way of a Pilgrim, derives from Paul’s command to the Thessalonians: “pray without ceasing.” The prayer itself is quite simple: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”[47] As the spiritual advisor of the unnamed narrator explains: “The continuous interior Prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine Name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart.”[48]

“With the lips.” The practice of prayer may eventually take internal root, but first it must start with the lips, in the body, not the spirit, as an uninterrupted form of speech. It’s spoken, sung, chanted — played

To go down to raise to go down to raise to go to down the
ladder to go down as taught as dance steps taught by the master[49]

run lines from “Giant Steps,” while in “Peace on Earth” one quatrain follows a similar pattern:

To lift up to go singing

 to hold hands with men and women

 to sing and hold hands with the children

 to go forward as a chorus without burden[50]

 

What links the Jesus Prayer to Coltrane’s sheets of sound to Taggart’s artful cycle of repetitions is not mystical as such. It is sound waves. “All sounding bodies,” the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz states, “are in a state of vibration … any series of impulses which produces a vibration of air will, if repeated with sufficient rapidity, generate sound. This sound becomes a musical tone when such rapid impulses recur with perfect regularity and in precisely equal times.”[51] It’s worth noting, in this context, that Helmholtz’s theory of the conservation of energy was the first serious attempt to contest the widely held view that the animating source of muscle tissue was some immaterial spirit. Like the Jesus Prayer, “Giant Steps” cannot occur in the soundless realm of the hypostatic; it is an event of the body and its singular power derives from this.

A poetics of the standing wave is intensely vibratory. It is marked by a devotion to the sound of the poem as it gradually unravels the semantic, sense-making mechanics of language into the semiotic musicality of language’s body, as these lines from Standing Wave attest to:

it is a poem about singing about reasons for singing
reasons one of the reasons for singing
the reason was to light the most quiet light
the reason was to light the light that was radiantia
radiantia that was a singing light in darkness[52]

“Giant Steps,” then, offers something like a poetic model combining the uninterrupted prayer of the hesychasts and Coltrane’s shimmering sheets of sound. Taggart’s use of repetition, his control of cadence, generates Gitler’s “density of texture,” its thickness and complexity, its sense of continuous flow. Such comparisons, of course, only carry so far. As Mark Scroggins reminds us, a poem cannot make words do the work of notes; it cannot produce pitch or the harmony that results from multiple notes simultaneously laid over one another. But like music, it takes place as a singular event in the speaking of it, carrying the power to waken men from nightmare. Taggart’s deep affiliation with Zukofsky anchors his spiritual yearning to a materialist, or immanentist, poetics of sound. Yet while Taggart is not, strictly speaking, a sound poet, ala Kurt Schwitters, he does, as Burt Kimmelman observes, use a staggered syntax of “overlapping waves of clauses … to direct our attention toward the sheer materiality of the words themselves.”[53] Taggart’s emphasis on sound, derived from Zukofsky and Coltrane, is just as motivated by a desire for social justice as it is the sacred. “Giant Steps,” at any rate, is a poem that wants to interrupt the tyranny of homogeneity that is historical consciousness by signaling another mode of relation language.

It may seem perverse to cite Theodor Adorno in this context, for whom jazz was only part of the phantasmagoria of modernity, the lulling background music of the culture industry’s manufacture of a “perennial sameness” in which “fashion enthrones itself as something lasting.”[54] But as J. Bradley Robinson has illuminatingly argued, the reactions to Adorno’s attacks on jazz are based on two misconceptions: “first, that it referred to what we regard today as jazz, and second, that the music it referred to was American.”[55] Adorno’s poor reception of jazz was based on Weimar republic dance hall bands of the 1920s and never really moved beyond that, even after he was exiled in America. This alone is not quite sufficient to counter his hostility toward such an aesthetically vibrant form.[56]

Nevertheless, it’s worth considering some other remarks he made on music since they offer another way to understand Taggart’s jazz poetics. In his beguiling fragment on music and language, Adorno notes that:

Music resembles a language … [but] is not identical with language … anyone who takes it literally will be seriously misled … music resembles language in the sense that it is a temporal sequence of articulated sounds which are more than just sounds. They say something, often something human.[57]

And yet, he advises:

The language of music is quite different from the language of intentionality. It contains a theological dimension. What it has to say is simultaneously revealed and concealed. Its Idea is the divine Name which has been given shape. It is demythologized prayer, rid of efficacious magic. It is the human attempt, doomed as ever, to name the Name, not to communicate meanings.[58]

This naming of the Name as such, a concept Adorno borrows from Benjamin’s early essay “On the Language of Men and Language as Such,” is only an idea of the divine, a yearning gesture made toward an absent, impossible, and necessary grace. As Benjamin notes, “naming is that by which nothing beyond it is communicated, and in which language itself communicates itself absolutely. In naming the mental entity that communicates itself is language.”[59] This naming by which naming names its own condition is semiotic and material. Yet it also leads to or opens up an experience of language that is outside of language; neither nonsense nor mysticism, it is something else altogether.

Taggart’s messianic poetics works the seam between two antithetical positions, forcing us to think the aporia of their relationship, the necessity of reconciling them and the impossibility of doing so. “To want to be a saint … to go down to raise”: this shuttling motion between dream and nightmare, song and history, drives the poem’s urgent momentum toward a resolution that is hoped for rather than achieved. “To raise men from nightmare” with a horn, or a song, is the project still to come, always to come — the continual task of the poem, which takes place in an arena mapped, on the one side, by Adorno’s grim assessment that, “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb,”[60] and the other by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s utopian insistence that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice.”[61] For Taggart, writing two decades after Coltrane and well after the crest of the civil rights movement, the challenge of taking giant steps toward peace on earth begins with the small assertions the poem can make. Or as he puts it in “In True Night”:

Of the constant song I keep some of the words

 Some of the basic words of the song in the air

                                                                    To dance

 To dance lily-flower dance and forget the steps

 To sing the song beyond all songs on the radio.[62]

 


 

1. John Taggart, Is Music, ed. Peter O’Leary (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2010), 253.

2. Taggart,  Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994), 188.

3. Jennifer D. Ryan, Post-Jazz Poetics: A Social History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 7.

4. Taggart, Songs of Degrees, 180.

5. Ibid., 190.

6. Taggart, Is Music, 44.

7. Ibid., 101.

8. Ibid., 104.

9. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 1.

10. Jacques Derrida and Ornette Coleman, “The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, June 23, 1997,” trans. Timothy Murphy, Genre 37, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 323.

11. Nat Hentoff, “John Coltrane,” in Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now, ed. Robert Gottlieb (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996), 622.

12. Ibid., 627.

13. Sascha Feinstein, Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997), 140.

14. David Ake, Jazz Cultures (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 128.

15. Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 299.

16. Gary Giddins and Scott Deveaux, Jazz (New York: Norton, 2009),427.

17. Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 138.

18. Qtd. in Meta DuEwa Jones, The Muse Is Music: Jazz Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance to the Spoken Word (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 170.

19. Eric Nisenson, Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 73.

20. Jones, The Muse Is Music, 88.

21. Louis Zukofsky, A Test of Poetry (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 12.

22. Taggart, Songs of Degrees, 86–89.

23. Zukofsky, A Test of Poetry, 90.

24. Taggart, Songs of Degrees, 145.

25. Ibid., 113.

26. If melody must be attended to in a way that asks the poet to think with things, through a devotional process of perception, just how far can we ask it to carry us along? Tracing it on from Pound’s principle of melopoeia, Mark Scroggins points to a fundamental confusion among poets who apply the seductive analogical rhetoric of melody to the spoken word of the poem. Poets have long been fond of mapping musical forms onto the lyric. Bunting claims it began with Spenser. But as Scroggins, a musician himself notes, “melopoeia is not identical to music” (Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge [Tuscaloosa: Alabama University Press, 1998], 172). Because words must entrain themselves, occurring in a poem in discrete time units, “the harmonization of simultaneous notes” available to musical composers, is simply not possible in a poem. Yet this metaphorical connection persists and retains its power because of the potentiality contained within the idea of simultaneity and multiplicity. This yearning of the poem to be transformed into pure music is messianic inasmuch as it interrupts language’s common function of communication.

27. Taggart, Songs of Degrees, 23.

28. Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 210.

29. Perloff, introduction to Songs of Degrees, xi.

30. Taggart, Is Music, 47.

31. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 263.

32. Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde (London: Verso, 1995), 150.

33. Taggart, Is Music, 47.

34. Ibid., 44.

35. Gilles Deleuze, The Fold, trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1992), 34.

36. Nat Hentoff, “John Coltrane,” in Reading Jazz, ed. Robert Gottlieb (New York: Vintage, 1996), 622.

37. Peter O’Leary, “Peace on Earth?: John Taggart’s Poem in Circular Motion,” XCP no. 10 (2002), 88.

38. Ibid.

39. Zukofsky, Prepositions +: The Collected Critical Essays (Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 2001), 15.

40. In book 5 of The Enneads, Plotinus explains that the One is comprised of three hypostases, consisting of the self-causing and absolute One itself, the Intellectual Principle, and the Soul. The latter two emanate or radiate from the One. This structure lent itself to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: that God was Three Persons-in-One. This awkward scheme tries to answer to the gap between the world of embodied experience, where motion and decay exist, and a fetishized Absolute of eternal non-motion. See Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 359.

41. Theodor Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. Knut Tarnowski and F. Will (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 162.

42. Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 50.

43. Richard Kearny, The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2001), 1. Kearney does not go so far as to reject the hypostatic nature of Christ’s divinity. Rather he looks to Merleau-Ponty’s model of the body-subject as “chiasmic crossing-over of visible carnality and invisible transcendence: as double but indivisible … the two natures are in one person (hypostasis)” (135). This seems to me a very willful misreading of Merleau-Ponty.

44. Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage, 1948), 255.

45. John Caputo explores this idea in The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Indiana University Press, 2006). For Caputo, event theology replaces the theology of the word, which is what I take hypostasis to subscribe to. Building on Derrida’s notion of God as a promise of the still-to-come and on Benjamin’s weak messianic force as an intervention into the past, rather than the future, Caputo articulates a post-metaphysical conception of God that answers to the suffering of history and the other rather than the empty triumphalism of the vindicated spirit.

46. O’Leary, “Peace on Earth?,” 93.

47. The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, trans. R. M. French (New York: Harper, 1952), 10.

48. Ibid., 8.

49. Taggart, Is Music, 44.

50. Ibid., 61.

51. Hermann von Helmholtz, Selected Writings, ed. Russell Kahl (Wesleyan University Press, 1971), 76.

52. Taggart, Standing Wave (Providence: Lost Roads Publications, 1993), 9.

53. Burt Kimmelman, “Quantum Syntax: John Taggart’s Discrete Serialism,” Flashpoint no. 5 (2002).

54. Adorno, Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), 123.

55. J. Bradley Robinson, “The Jazz Essays of Theodor Adorno: Some Thoughts on Jazz Reception in Weimar Germany,” Popular Music 13, no. 1 (1994): 1.

56. Robinson provides a thorough examination of how Adorno came to understand jazz as the popular music of fascism. For one thing, Adorno insisted that jazz did not originate with American blacks “in the very lowest rungs of society,” but somehow precipitated downwards from the German upper classes (19). More tellingly, Joseph Lewandowski observes that, contrary to Adorno’s call for art forms that would answer to the failure of modernity and its hopes for utopia through a strict negativity (think Beckett and Celan), “jazz is a promise of happiness that refuses to be broken … jazz is not demythologized prayer but secularized social composition” (“Adorno on Jazz and Society,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 22, no. 5 [1996]: 117). Likewise, Nick Nesbitt, in his essay “Deleuze, Adorno, and the Composition of Musical Multiplicity,” in Deleuze and Music, ed. Ian Buchanan and Marcel Swiboda (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), describes Coltrane’s modal jazz as “music [that] instantiates productive, radically constituent musical subjectivity as a critique of the alienation and violence of what Toni Negri, following Spinoza, calls potestas or ‘constituted Power.’ For Coltrane, this transcendental Power lay not only in the reigning violence of Jim Crow America, but in the sedimented forms of musical expression itself” (71).

57. Adorno, Quasi una fantasia: Essays on Modern Music (London: Verso, 2012), 1.

58. Ibid., 2.

59. Walter Benjamin, Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 318.

60. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), 320.

61. Ibid., 252.

62. Taggart, Is Music, 129.

That Taggart

‘Grey Scale/Zukofsky’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Louis Zukofsky by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, 1968.

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

And so I come

 to the

 to the one/only photograph on my wall

 

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

 still stubborn still

 

 

 come

 

 home to Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s 1968 photograph of Zukofsky

 

 on my wall.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

On John Taggart's 'There Are Birds'

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

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

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

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


Views inside the Rothko Chapel.

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

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

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


II

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

And goes is gone

 cause for mourning head

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

 of the dead. (Birds, 1)

 

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

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

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

And boo-hoo-hoo

 like dolls

 hurt breaks you up like dolls get broken the visible human

 the visibly spastic plastic. (3)

 

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

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

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

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

 in a woods walking and enchanting sonata or song

 in a woods. (90)

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

 where men and women are in contemplation in conversation in

 one another’s eyes

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

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

 

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

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


Louis Zukofsky by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, 1968.

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


III

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

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

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

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

the environment this valley between two blue mountains

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

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

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

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

and later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

andantino cantabile. (29)[25]

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

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

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

their motive the desire motive

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

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

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

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

which gets your attention which
is another rule

as a snake gets your attention (17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

My story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hama = with drus
=tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a single tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

what could be more ridiculous

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

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

what has been long prepared for what
cannot be prepared for

the sudden the moment subitane moment

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

no photograph
no photograph would (72)

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

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

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

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


IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 there’s a body

 undecorative body of a woman empurpled on a

 a nonornamental ground

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

     key to the dream and to the

 whole adamant mood of a fresco a wall

 which makes the impingement more than an impingement

 giving it drama ballets and divertissements depths and subtleties sensual

 summonings. (79)

 

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

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

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

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

a tramp a person recognizable from childhood a childhood snapshot

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

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

one and only long opening sigh

 body’s

 exhalations

 harp-tone/vibraphone glissandos chains of frills inflorescences

 flowers simple

 stars in a repeat/no-repeat Moroccan rhythm

 pink needing some blue

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

 slumbering empurpled body a dream a mood

 a structure of mood

 depths and subtleties summonings

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

 what a carver does (81)

 

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

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

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


V

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

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

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

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

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


There Are Birds, cover photo by Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

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

there is free song

 a free weaving of many songs

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

 tant

 doucement the phrase means what the songs mean

 freshness

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

 

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

there is
free song a free weaving of many songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

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

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

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

6. Ibid., 44.

7. Ibid., 47.

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

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

10. Taggart, When the Saints, 69.

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

12. Ibid., 124.

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

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

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

upon those notes tant

 ducement the phrase means what the notes mean

 layer/interwoven in the white light 

refreshment

 

which in There Are Birds were revised as

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

 tant

 doucement the phrase means what the songs mean

 freshness (2)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

21. Williams, Selected Essays, 124.

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

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

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

Let’s start with the ABC of it,

 Roll right down to the XYZ of it

 Help me solve the mystery of it,

 Teach me tonight!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

35. Williams, Selected Essays, 122.

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

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

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

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

40. Stevens, Collected Poems, 373.

41. Williams, Selected Essays, 128.

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

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

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

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

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

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

48. Taggart, Pastorelles, 26.

49. Ibid., 66.

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