Let’s begin by making a distinction between “myth” and “mythology,” in which the latter term refers to a big coffee table book that espouses a belief in systems while claiming to catalogue all sorts of mythic material as it arose from some particular zone of the planet. Let’s say that the term “myth” is one that escapes mythology, because it is still in process, or at least that some myths have a chance of escaping the logos because they are still in process, and that these are the important ones for a live poetry. In this sense, myth ends where mythology begins, and a myth-in-process would not be a story in a traditional sense, since it is incomplete: not those myths that are achievements and emblems of fame and hence conservative compensations for mortality, but the myths that are still being unfolded in the deep structures of perception, thought, and desire, and thus harbingers of natality, of things to come. To talk about the poetry of Joseph Donahue we need a third term, too — “mythography,” in which the myth is still in process by way of writing, as opposed to, say, as part of an active oral tradition. Moreover, we need to think about a mythography as diverse as a great city, as infinite as a grain of sand, as jostled as the mind in the age of the media blitz upon the possibilities of language, perception, and desire, and as cutting-edge as American poetry has been able to muster since Black Mountain and the New York School, if we want to do justice to the textures of Donahue’s writing.
For my micropurpose, I want to look at a single text of Donahue’s from his first, great book, Before Creation. That text is the page-and-a-half-long “Posthaste and Romage,” in which many of the latter motifs of Terra Lucida and Donahue’s other later, larger works can already be found. Published in 1989, the poem foregrounds sky and skyscraper:
broken into zones.
Half ecstatic transfiguration
and half resembling an agony without hope. […]
Blue cup: each twist of steam
a naked outline. Branches wet, torn.
World Trade lost in the silver ball of a stormcloud.
You look up from your desk. You spiral free from
a recurrent daydream about an incident of self-blinding.
Retrospectively, I am struck here by the image of the Twin Towers (“World Trade”), lost twelve years after Before Creation’s publication to hijacked planes, intense fire, cataclysmic fall, and mass death. In the poem it is momentarily lost in the ball of a silver stormcloud. This occurs just as the subjectivity in the poem spirals away from a self-destructive reverie, perhaps Oedipal in nature, as in Sophocles, when Oedipus atones for the polluted city by putting out his eyes, one-upping the gods in the process, in a turn of the plot that did not exist in any prior version of the myth of Oedipus but rather is Sophocles’ mark on that myth. The sky is here in zones, one of “ecstatic transfiguration,” the other of hopelessness, as if fractured or torn down the middle. In one way, this is a sky as empty and pleasant as a late summer day. But it also must be autumn, perhaps latest autumn, with that particular chill in the air, and the smell of burning leaves or other mysteries that the nostrils pick up for months on end. Certainly Donahue always posits the tiny against the huge as here a coffee cup releases a cloud of steam (one of those blue, Greek-mythology-illustrated cups omnipresent in New York during that period?). I don’t think I’m wrong to think to of Pound’s “Station in the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
On the basis of Donahue’s
Branches wet, torn.
How does Donahue succeed in making each image in his composition so suggestive, so saturated? How do we move from the sky gods to the underground of the subway and the crowds of the dead? And how does Donahue move us from the world in tatters to rebirth in the poem?
The text of “Posthaste and Romage” continues:
The islands rising are drops of blood
Scattered by a god’s sword.
This, and other myths of pure origin.
Blue fog. A bridge
The color of mountains upriver.
A friend calls the rain adoration.
River, white. Gold sky flaking into black …
But you are older and have begun to bathe
in the streams of light in which all things are named.
If one of the powers of myth is to make a landscape inhabitable, then a passage like this operates on the built landscape, in a mode of composition only a wisp away from description, and yet far more than mere description. Light, moisture, and mist are light, moisture, and mist, but now they are animate, especially moisture. Color is light made present and rain is a gift. “Fire escape,” a few lines later, is indeed “fire escape,” but also a possible escape from fire. Mist lifts to reveal a mountain, a skyscraper, or the lashes of an eye whose form makes one forget everything but the female. It is Donahue’s attention to the particular that allows the divinity at play in the particular to be felt on the page, and then to vanish just as quickly, “like a goddess in Cocteau,” as “Posthaste and Romage” reminds us a few lines later.
Then, in italics:
I can’t explain where this joy is coming from.
Red robe lost in smoke and choruses,
a woman standing in a circle of fire.
A garden scratched in stone.
A flayed satyr cradling a child
as each cradles a fresh sentiment.
At midnight you rearrange the letters.
The alphabet of rapture rises.
Myth is a narrative that is not quite narrative because it remains incomplete; mythography is the writing of the incomplete, in the awareness of our complete immersion in a language in which each question contains a quest, because the word “question” insists, and in which the responses to the question become part of the myth. If one is the mythographer, “At midnight you rearrange the letters.” Myth mutters “mother” but also mutters the impossibility of knowing the point of origin. Composition is natality, not mortality, to borrow and reconfigure a distinction Hannah Arendt offers to distinguish the philosophy we have known heretofore from the philosophy she wants us to know. Spiraling amidst the sprites and goddesses of a condemned cityscape that will only reveal themselves in moments of heightened intensity, myth is on the verge of a new articulation when “The alphabet of rapture rises.” Myth is premonition is transcendence. In Before Creation, Donahue’s body of work is already on its way, resisting the fate of the mythological in favor of the birth of twenty-first-century myths of violence, destruction, and rebirth.
To live with a poet’s work for a long time is to change and find that the work opens itself to future selves. One hopes but never knows whether the work will continue to disclose its layers over time, that it will continue to unfold. I’ve lived with Joseph Donahue’s poems for years, each time coming back to them a slightly different person, each time apprehending different layers of their baroque density, their teeming referentiality. But what astounds me as much now as the first time I read Donahue’s poem “Desire” is how completely cinematic the work is, enjambing little fragments of story, myth, and image into a flowing continuity, a weirdly seamless, sinuous musical surface that points back to the pleasure of embodiment, the sensation of these words sliding on the tongue. And simultaneously: to the pleasure of the mind itself constituting movement. Because “Desire” immediately emerged for me as a text to aspire to, it raised and continues to raise the question “how is a poem like a movie?” But each time the question repeats, it changes a little until it becomes “how does a poem’s form make image and thought move?” And then, “What is pleasurable about the constitution of movement?” I can only offer preliminary notes towards an answer here, but a beginning is Gilles Deleuze’s assertion that film is a “thinking form,” that its medium-specific power is its capacity for movement, because thought itself is movement. Donahue’s poems, likewise, bring us to the movement of thought inscribed in language’s temporality.
Over the years, I’ve developed the habit of periodically revisiting the poem, which begins “Desire’s green / and gold corona / in the wavering branch // and the shuttle of syllables through white light / and the pleasure of the mind of God permeating all accident.” Immediately here in the first two stanzas are crystallized the themes that expand and crisscross through Donahue’s work: desire, the image, the sacred, and contingency as time/history. Reading “Desire” is like looking at a photograph of obscure but tremendous sentimental value — it marks the passage of time, a document of what I’ve always thought vital and pleasurable, but also a text which casts its own images into the cauldron of its retrospective gaze, one thoroughly inflected by the technologically mediated image: “The kodachrome bits blow through the world / and incidents take on the color of that former time / though far from where you are.” These kodachrome bits are the prisms through which you consider the nature of time, as internally divided and fraught as the self. The image as Gongorine diffraction, splitting space-times.
Joseph Donahue’s poems unfold in two ways: across the time of the page, akin to the mechanical standardized time of a film. The stanza breaks are cuts, presenting and displacing the many images that the poems are made of. The stanza here takes on its literal definition, a room for words containing thought, each room a scene whose door opens onto the next scene, the mysteries of the universe posed in the restless movement from room to room. There is an eerie feeling of entering the suite of rooms at the end of Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey: 2001 — are we at the very quiet and still dawn of the universe or at its end? In the 2009 installment of Donahue’s long poem Terra Lucida, the final section of the collection begins:
Hermes said: The soul
the soul is a burning circle
And, Earth, a black room
wired for sound, not a stall
A garage, a root cellar,
not a tabernacle, a grave site
A honeymoon suite. A dig site
where, on a glowing scroll
buried in a wall, Hermes
whispers: Let all be black
room inside the sun,
full of sounds and souls.
Let all become intervals.
Let numbers flood the air of
the earth, notes no one
hears, that will be bodies …
A couple in a room.
A burning circle.
Mist on our skin turns
back to air. While outside,
a sound like the sun at night
a breeze through a forest
where bodies are only
where sound will be.
This poem, Donahue’s collaboration with composer Scott Lindroth, makes the ground of the collaboration itself — the black room wired for sound — into the metaphorical space of Hermes’ transmutation of sound into flesh. We meet Hermes, god of travel and thresholds, at the beginning of creation, this beginning which reoccurs in so many different iterations throughout Donahue’s work, as evidenced from his first book, the stunning post-New York School Before Creation,to his mature work in Terra Lucida which can be understood as a series of world creations and destructions. There can be no unitary origin myth in Donahue’s poems because for him, genesis is the birth of multiplicity and heterogeneity.
And yet, the poems aren’t all exaltation and cosmogony; there’s a movement in Joe’s work between the cosmic and the daily, a sudden and surprising tendency to track into the minutia of daily life and back out again. In the aforementioned poem “Desire,” we see this movement in the lines, “the way a sudden turn / towards intimacy in a conversation can resemble // a cycle of fire purifying your past.” Which brings me to the second way in which Donahue’s poems unfold: across the larger, more fragmented and more tenuous time of history and the personal — as history and the personal continuously overlap.
I was eighteen and taking my first creative writing workshop in college when I read “Desire” in Primary Trouble, a 1996 anthology edited by Donahue and my then-teacher Leonard Schwartz (which articulates a lucid vision of experimental poetry in the mid-to late-nineties outside of a Language paradigm). I knew very little about contemporary American poetry and was sort of annoyed by the mannered experimentalism of a lot of the stuff we were reading, while also feeling bored to death by what was in that moment mainstream poetry (the division between these two traditions being at that time much more sharp than it is now). Leonard was good at dealing with my eye-rolling, recently post-teenage self and asked me to look through the anthology and tell him who I did like. The poems that grabbed me were by Eileen Myles (whose name I sort of knew from the feminist punk rock circles I moved in as a teenager) and Joseph Donahue.
At times, these two poets seem worlds apart, except for both being from Massachusetts and having written great poems about the mythology of the Kennedy clan (Eileen’s “American Poem” and Joe’s “With Lulu at the Beach”). But I’ll go out on a limb here and claim a larger similarity: there’s a tremendous generosity towards lived experience in these two poets, towards their own and towards that of others. In Myles’s work it manifests itself in a direct use of biographical material, a concentration of performative verve and observational acuity. In Donahue’s work, this relationship to experience is oblique. He rarely even uses the personal pronoun, instead often addressing the poems to “you,” a curious pronoun that simultaneously figures the author and the reader as the protagonist of the poem. Donahue’s investment in experience manifests in his poem’s tendency to look back retrospectively, to think sensation in terms of what has been known and what is now known by the body, a constant cutting between the purely contingent states of “was,” “were,” and “will be.”
Retrospectively, I recognize an intuition that I had in my early love of Joe and Eileen’s work, one that has changed and developed over time but still holds true for me: that what animates great art is experience circulated through form, modifying a given set of forms, even sometimes to the point of breaking the form. This is an intuition confirmed by Walter Benjamin in that old saw about great storytellers being able to move up and down the rungs of their experience like a ladder. Except I’m talking here about poetry, an art concerned with the fragmentation and dispersion of stories across images, feeling, and thought — not an art overly concerned with storytelling. But what remains when the scaffolding of narrative has faded into the distance, anyway? Images, feeling, and thought: the material of experience. It’s not the story that we’re looking for; it’s the sensations that the story calls up. Donahue reconstitutes these shattered bits of experience, setting them into the artificial movement of the poem.
There’s a small part of this aforementioned intuition which is profoundly adolescent, an adolescence which I wish to preserve for life, which reads in the poem “Desire” a description of a longing with no true object, only the world itself with its urban architectures and its attendant injustices, the violence that flickers at the edge of consciousness in the form of the nightly news but which also constitutes this world, as in the lines, “words freshly tilted drift askew. / The aura of recent racial beatings touches the airy realm of the / fire escape where she talks about her diffidence.” To desire is to fully inhabit that world and its energies before taking the requisite distance that defines adulthood.
And then there’s something I am moving towards as I get older in the poem “Desire” which I cannot fully understand yet, and is not belief proper, but the growing conviction that the invisible exists as particularly as the visible, that the material always contains something of the immaterial, as in the lines:
Day’s ferocity meanders
Through lack of significant feeling
the face of the other fading,
each a ghost in the other’s dream but only one is still alive)
and your thoughts turn back to Juan de la Cruz
The gnosticism of Donahue’s work has lead some to question the modernity of his poetry, because it’s easy to assume that modernity is simply secularization, rather than the fragmentation and displacement of belief. Donahue’s work is thoroughly modern in this latter sense; the mystical is another hermeneutic for reading reality. The poem’s thoughts turn back to Saint John of the Cross, the Catholic martyr who wrote the Spiritual Canticle, a poem which allegorizes a wife seeking her husband as a soul seeking Christ. Historically, this poem’s language has been exemplary in demonstrating the surprising erotics of Christian martyrdom — God referred to as “Beloved” throughout. In Donahue’s “Desire,” the search and longing of Spiritual Canticle transform into someone searching for his other, “each a ghost in the other’s dream,” who we know cannot, will never be able to complete the speaking subject.
What Joseph Donahue’s “Desire” continues to show me is thought’s movement articulating the experience of lived time — our desires so thoroughly created and bounded by time. I’ve felt unease at the term desire before, equating it with the instant satisfaction of my culture, American culture, but in Donahue’s poems, desire is something else: a homesickness for something not yet known but sensed, a desire for knowledge both manifest and occult. Desire is the will to think at the juncture where thought meets emotion. To read the world as it unfolds in its bright and troubled light as Terra Lucida, the title of Donahue’s long poem, reminds us.
[From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate is an ongoing series of letters written by composer/multi-instrumentalist N., founding member of a band known as the Molimo m’Atet based in Los Angeles.]
Dear Angel of Dust,
I’m enclosing a tape of a new piece we just added to our book. It’s called “Other Lives, Their Jostle” and it’s written by Drennette, a rare foray into composition for her. The title comes from a poem she came upon recently, a poem called “Transfigurations” by a poet named Joseph Donahue, of whom, she explained when she introduced the piece to us at rehearsal, she’d never heard before. She was browsing in Chatterton’s Bookstore the other day and came upon it in a little magazine she picked up and began to thumb thru, an obscure literary journal of which, she says, she’d also never heard but ended up buying a copy, unable to put the poem down. She brought copies of the poem to rehearsal and, as we could see, it begins with those four words: “Other lives, their jostle.”
Something about it got to her. Something took hold and wouldn’t let go, she says. It tugged at her, not letting her be, so much so that rather than going directly home when she left Chatterton’s, as had been her plan, she went around the corner to the teahouse on Melbourne, went in, ordered tea, and sat down to reread the poem, unable to wait to get home to do so, rereading it again and again. Maybe it had to do with having lived in New York, she explained, for she saw in the contributors’ notes at the back of the journal that Joseph Donahue lives in New York. “Jostle in the sense of impingement, yes, being put upon by others, the fact of so many others,” she said, “shoulder to shoulder on a subway or a bus the least of it. But there’s something else to it, more to it.” She paused as we hung on her words. “It’s that necropolitan aspect I often sensed when I lived there,” she went on, “a necropolitan aura, a necropolitan umbra, as though so many people packed into so compressed a space going so busily about their business put pressure on being to the point of rubbing it out, erasing it, a reduction to pure machination, living dead.” She paused again, gathering her thoughts. “I got that sense often when I lived there,” she said when she spoke again. “Maybe it’s that he got that sense into the poem.”
But it wasn’t only that, she went on to insist. It wasn’t only, if I heard her correctly, an apprehension of living dead, it wasn’t that preemption alone. It wasn’t only a sense of the living dead but of the dead living, age and wear, which are also, she pointed out, a sign of endurance, having as much to do with it as the monumentality bearing down on you wherever you look. “We don’t get that here,” she summed up this part of what she had to say by saying, “at least not in so strong a dose. Here it’s too spread out to accrue in that relentless way.” Having said that, she continued to specify the “something else” she meant to get to or to give a sense of, the “more to it” she insisted was there and that we see was there. She wanted us to understand jostle as also something inward, proliferation within, perturbation within, a stir the word “soul” might carry, transmigratory the farther in one went.
The upshot was that the poem had, as she put it, held her captive. She had sat in the teahouse for a couple of hours mulling over it, reading it over and over, sipping tea. She was struck by so much in the poem she could barely, she told us, begin to touch on its details and its particulars, driven to compose by that very fact, the persistence of “something else” not yet gone into or gotten to no matter how much was gone into or gotten to. She put it this way: “I remembered having read Shepp say somewhere that Trane’s music proposes an infinite horizon. I remembered that Something Else!!!! is the title of Ornette’s first album. Grachan Moncur III’s Some Other Stuff came to mind as well, as did Jimmy Lyons’s Other Afternoons and Gary Bartz’s Another Earth, not to mention the plea for ‘another chance’ in so much blues, R&B, and pop, all of it suggesting a sense of alternative or a call for alternative. I wanted “Other Lives, Their Jostle,” which I then and there named and began to imagine, to be a vehicle for, a sense or a call nowhere more outright than in Sun Ra’s “I Am the Alter-Destiny,” a sense of elseness or a call for elseness.”
There was, though, one thing she would go into, one such particular, something, she went on to say, related and in some ways catalytic to the sense of alternative her piece would be an exponent of. This was the poem’s preference for sentence fragments over grammatically complete sentences, a tendency she called its “phrasal bent,” sometimes its “clausal bent,” a predilection so pronounced she resorted to counting the relative occurrence of the two. While at the teahouse, that is, she went thru the poem and counted the number of sentence fragments ending with periods and the number of grammatically complete sentences, finding around eighty of the former and around thirty of the latter, a ratio tending toward three to one. Consistent with and probably an effect of the jostle and the impingement present in the poem, as though events and apprehensions crowded it, came in too fast to be noted other than telegraphically, sketchily, breathlessly almost, too fast and too abundant for grammatical completeness, this feature, Drennette noted, is conducive to and conveys a certain wariness of predication, maintaining a trepidatious tone. That tone or that tack, we could see, is there right away:
Other lives, their jostle. The engineer
crumples error into a paper ball, hurls it
as I enter. Man in the locker room,
skeleton visible beneath pale ripples
of fleshless skin. At the corner phone,
the acting vice president, her son
beaten with a pipe in a drug transaction.
“It’s as though,” Drennette pointed out, “nothing good could come of predication, as though the declarative sentence were to be avoided or, if not avoided, put off as long as possible, as though the sentence most often, if not always, carries, eponymously, a juridical, punitive sense: ‘Orestes is condemned to scrub the blood / from his parent’s house.’”
Yes, we could see, grammatically fulfilled sentences often, if not always, report unfulfilling outcomes (“No Summa survives the saint who writes it”) and the poem seems to be countering a dystopian closure that sentences carry, shying away from that sort of completion. “Other Lives, Their Jostle,” Drennette explained, ups the ante on this. She distributed two copies of the poem to each of us, on one of which all the complete sentences were blacked out with a felt marker. The piece opens with Drennette soloing, reminiscent of Max Roach’s “The Dream / It’s Time” on the Chattahoochee Red album, the one where he interlaces the concluding passages of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with his drum solo. Here the spoken part is the rest of the band reciting lines from the copy of the poem on which the sentences have been blacked out, reciting lines made up only of sentence fragments — an all the more phrasal bent, all the more clausal bent, plied in pursuit of a utopic horizon.
As you can hear, the recitation is neither a straightforward reading of the poem nor anywhere near a setting of it as in lieder. Drennette left each of us free to choose which passages to recite, and we all recited at the same time, so that different passages are heard simultaneously, each up against the others, paratactic jostle. Nor is there any attempt to get it all in. The complete sentences, of course, are already excluded, in addition to which we made no effort to recite each and every sentence fragment in the poem. In the course of the four spoken “breaks” woven in with and punctuating Drennette’s solo I don’t think the five of us covered more than a third of the available lines. This was yet another nod to incompletion, one that Drennette took even farther in the writing of the piece and in the guidelines for our improvisations. The piece is written in such a way that none of its musical thoughts is completed, in terms of harmonic accord and resolution, melodic or motivic sustainment, rhythmic predictability, cadential arrival and such. We were instructed to take the same approach in our solos, to introduce ideas, thoughts, phrases, riffs, motifs and what have you, only not to finish them.
It turned out well I think. It was an exercise in derailing habit, among other things, with all the challenges that come with that. It took some work, more than a few run-throughs, but I think we eventually rose to the occasion. And it was in fact that, an occasion, Drennette not being much given to composition nor inclined to as much talk as the poem drew out of her. It’s a testament to the power of the poem that it did, especially that a work so dark had her talking about utopic horizons, alter-destiny, elseness and such (though maybe it’s only natural, in some respect, that it did, a dialectic of release or relief). Never had we heard her go on so. I think that led us to put a little more into it, even at the risk of trying too hard, which I think we were guilty of the first few times thru. Her being so worked up got us worked up. But it all did eventually come together.
You can and will listen for yourself of course, but I’m particularly taken with the arpeggiated G-flat pedal the piece’s head, insofar as it can be said to have one, plays around with. I hesitate at “head,” thinking “throat song” might better apply, given the deep devotional stutter bordering on deep devotional hiccup the opening ensemble statement hits one with. Drennette instructed us to each pick a passage from the poem other than those we recited during her drum solo and to let it influence and, so to speak, preside over our solo, at the very least be kept in mind as we soloed. We were not to recite it outright or, worse, try to act it out on the axe, charadelike, but simply let it be there, not bearing down too hard, not conflicting with the dictates of incompletion. Here are the passages that Djamilaa, Aunt Nancy, Lambert, and Penguin chose: (a) “Her entrance, nine years back. Asked by police / if a car was involved.” (b) “Colonial attitude of the mind / toward its residence.” (c) “New York rinsed by rain.” (d) “On the laundromat floor / the towel that Pilate used. Golgotha. Sinai. Tabor.” Try, as you listen, to figure out who chose which. (I’m enclosing a copy of the poem.)
As for me, I chose “Not that, but not uninformed of that.” As you’ll hear, it inspired something of a grittiness in my trumpet, an off-the-cuff grace I don’t know would have been there otherwise. I was nothing if not turned on but also nothing if not turned around by it, a mix only quick extension held at bay. I’d have shinnied up the world’s tallest tree, had my arms and legs been strong enough, and shouted it from the top: “Not that, but not uninformed of that.”
Reading Joseph Donahue’s Before Creation in reverse order, the short biographical statement at the back of the book serves as a kind of accidental preface for the poet’s first collection. Not only does it tell of his birth in Texas, his adolescence in Massachusetts, and his current life in New York City, it also sets the tone for the text that is to come. With its references to Donahue’s many hometowns, the short, no-frills note keys us into the poet’s love of populated landscapes, his fondness for luxuriating in the minutia of Cold War cul-de-sacs and Reagan-era rooftops. In providing the poet’s year of birth (1954), the bio resonates with Donahue’s characteristic desire to calibrate personal experiences with larger generational trends. The poems in the early collection forward a handful of autobiographical details but all serve to establish a representative speaker, an all but anonymous baby boomer, hurdling through the late-capital carousel of post-modernity. As much as the book can be said to be about anything, it takes its subject from those ideas expressed in the bio. And it is with this in mind that I want to pause for a moment to consider one specific tidbit from the ersatz introduction.
In giving us a glimpse into the primordial chowder out of which the poet emerged, the bio announces Donahue was “educated at Dartmouth and Columbia.” Surely this could be read as a thoughtless credentialing gesture, meant to establish the poet’s intellectual mettle. But it seems important that the list of alma maters features the ambiguous verb “educated,” which does not necessarily mean graduated. In 1988, when Central Park Editions went to press with the volume, Donahue was still pursuing said education as a graduate student, overburdened with secondary sources and slogging through a dissertation while cobbling together piecemeal academic work. The bio then poses Donahue’s poetry in tandem with his scholarly labors. It tacitly portrays the dissertation as an opportunity for the poet to find his voice in the verse of another, to hone a poetics out of persistent study.
Looking back over the beautiful tributes collected here, we see Donahue’s poetry compared to the work of writers such as Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, Hart Crane, Alice Notley, Ed Roberson, Nathaniel Mackey, Wallace Stevens, Eileen Myles, the Black Mountain Poets, the New York School, and Henry Corbin. One cannot say enough about a talent that touches upon so many strands of literary tradition while retaining a deeply distinctive vision. Nevertheless, there is one name missing from the impressive list of influences and interlocutors. It is the poet Donahue sought to understand more intensely than any other, as the subject of his single-author dissertation, entitled “The Poem’s Force: Culture and Poetics in the work of John Berryman.” For those well acquainted with Donahue’s poetry, Berryman will seem an unlikely fit. Formally, Berryman’s work represents a conservative aesthetic, one based upon a notion of lapidary precision and metrical cohesion, whereas Donahue’s early work exhibits a looser style that brings together vatic digressions and unfettered circumlocution. Even in terms of content, Berryman’s long-suffering narcissism seems a direct contrast to Donahue’s wry dispersal of self. However, in mapping Berryman’s trajectory in the dissertation, Donahue finds more than a one-dimensional egocaught in the feedback loop of carnal confession. He finds a subject worthy of Pound’s claim that the study of literature is hero worship, which is to say he finds in Berryman the poetic pulse for his first collection.
In drawing attention to Berryman’s reverence for popular mythos, Donahue registers an interpretation that sets the stage for his own embrace of bygone icons. Referring to Berryman as “the poet who most cannily registers American anxieties in the postwar era,” Donahue sees in him a scribe sensitive to the drama of identity unfolding in consumer products (1). For evidence of Berryman’s casual mythologies, he quotes from Dream Song 273.
Saudi Arabia is mah favorite place.
‘conditioned Cadillacs, like bigoty Texas
of our own mindless oil.
Come closer, Sambo. I plant your face
ilex. Your face. You jus like a flex
where the bulb failed. Flail (292)
Expounding upon the passage, Donahue points to the Cadillac — unrivalled token of postwar American prosperity — which sets in motion a network of associations connecting the black gold of Texas and Saudi Arabia with the burnt cork of American racial fantasies.
Following Berryman’s example, Donahue makes his first book into a crowded collage, thick with midcentury material. In the tableau of found images, we see “Sputnik over the lake bed,” with “Goebbels himself [showing] signs of strain” (59, 62). Lenny Bruce is there, and so is the “swastika etched in the pupil” (18, 7). In one corner of the assemblage, “the Beethoven of bebop steps to the mike” and belts out “Swing low / Sweet Cadillac,” and in another an expatriate wistfully recalls her life in “Russia, circa 1961” (36, 38, 69). And everything in between burns with the vintage hue of “kodachrome bits [blown] through the world” (76). Inviting the readers to see “the echo of similitude across great distance,” the atomic bricolage highlights those cultural parallels that link the years that bookend the Berlin Wall (78). It also reveals Donahue’s fascination with brand names and billboards, a sentiment he makes evident in the poem “Here and There”:
Every product has
an inherent drama,
said Leo Burnett. The
Marlboro Man. Hell,
Tony the Tiger. These
are masterpieces. (42)
In half-ironically referring to the advertisements as masterpieces, Donahue follows Berryman’s example and opens himself up to the human story hidden away in the detritus of consumerism.
According to Donahue, Berryman’s interest in mass culture leads him to structure The Dream Songs around the tropes of blackface-minstrelsy. On this he writes, “Berryman’s minstrel show historicizes the relation between media and the imagination of selfhood, presenting minstrelsy as the origin of mass media” (19). Foregrounding the racial subtext of the American dream in his own poetry, Donahue composes “Crania Americana,” a poem that meditates on the invisible role African slaves and African American laborers play in the construction of American ideology. In making the speaker of his poem “the first slave [to set] foot in the New World,” Donahue tells the story of empire from “beneath [the] unruly bundle” of structural inequality, where the “dreams are sad because they [are] true” (54, 53, 52). And like Berryman, who sees in blackface an unstable dialectic, Donahue imagines the slave in terms of a mythic complex, an epistemological double, as he announces, “the dead slave / and the living slave are one” (53).
However it is not until “Purple Ritual,” the centerpiece of Donahue’s first collection, that we see his most apparent application of Berryman’s poetics. In the dissertation, Donahue writes, “Berryman presents himself as a rhetorical figure in his own poetry, an interlocutor” (3). Here Donahue calls attention to the dialogical dimension of Berryman’s Dream Songs, specifically the poet’s construction of a literary alter ego, Huffy Henry. Through the mouthpiece that is Henry, Berryman is able to confess all sorts of vulgar impulses without collapsing the work into self-centered memoir. In providing the reader with “a voice that hears voices,” Berryman uses his rhetorical presence in the poem to assert his identity, while also expanding the boundaries of the self. Similarly, Donahue claims that his purpose for writing “Purple Ritual” is to erect a myth of surrogate selfhood, stating, “My lack of legend the drama’s first cause” (23).
In gathering the lore of corporate selfhood, the poem brings together three different perspectives: the biography of John F. Kennedy, the childhood memories of the poet himself, and the ancient exploits of Orestes. In the beginning of “Purple Ritual,” Donahue treats the three contexts as different realities, consigning each to its own series of sections. By the end, Kennedy becomes an extended member of the poet’s family, Orestes substitutes both for the President and the speaker of the poem, and the perspectival triad comes to stand as a cipher for the casual brutality of ecstatic nationalism. In searching for some significant event to orient his narration of the past, the poet lights upon his numerous personal connections to the assassinated President. He admits, “I was in Dallas when Kennedy was shot” and goes on to frame the statement as a confession: “I tend to confess when talking about my past,” a disclosure meant to muster the “fantasy of […] self-consciousness” (23). While the poet draws attention to the historical convergences between his life and Kennedy’s, it is not Kennedy but Orestes that reigns as the poet’s generative double.
Where Berryman dons the mask of Huffy Henry, Donahue finds a revelatory guise in the myth of Orestes. And like Henry, Orestes, in Donahue’s vision, leads a life of limited inner resources. “He [reads] idealist history. He [thinks] about hanging himself” (22). Departing from the myth of the matricidal madman, Donahue creates a version of Orestes consistent with the poet’s own daily grind, which allows for meta-textual commentary about his current project: “Orestes weighed his absence of childhood legend against his tabloid fascination: national families.” And like Donahue, Orestes associates memory with a kind of writing that surfaces between the cracks of other intellectual engagements, as he states, “the subtle raptures of purposeful work brought him an image of his early past, the gift of a world in a book, of a world as a book” (28).
In compiling Before Creation, Donahue does not limit his interest in Berryman to issues of content and form; he also engages the latter at the level of poetic theory. One of the central claims in Donahue’s dissertation is that Berryman’s poetics center around the belief that “a poem’s force may be pivoted upon a missing or misrepresented element in an agreed-on or imposed design.” Here the pivot has less to do with the form of the poem, as it relates to the “turning or rebounding” of the Petrarchan sonnet and more to do with the action of poetic thought. The pivot for Berryman, according to Donahue, resembles the “turning of the soul in conversion narratives.” Like any good spiritual autobiography, the Dream Songs understand one act of confession begets another, as each admission intends to capture some absented truth. In order to build a sense of mystery and rouse interest, the poet keeps some secret from the reader. For Donahue, then, the defining characteristic of Berryman’s poetry is that it “derives its force, ultimately, from that notion that information can be crucially withheld from the reader” (12).
Instances of critical concealment abound in Donahue’s first collection, though nowhere as apparent as in “Purple Ritual.” In terms of form, Donahue uses the strategies of selective obscurity to blur the line separating his personal experiences from those communal narratives of the nation-state. The connection that Donahue draws between his family and the Kennedys is not simply a result of what the poet tells us — that his uncle, “a veteran of the JFK senate campaigns, joined the White House as a liaison to Congress” (26). Rather, the connection depends as much upon what he does not tell us: all those intimate details about his family that do not relate to the myth of the Kennedys. Even when the poet recalls personal memories that separate his family from every other family including the Kennedys, he handles the material in ways that call his family’s distinctiveness into question.
A case in point occurs at the level of content. In a section entitled “First Communion,” Donahue delivers an account of his initiation into the Catholic church. In the passage, a botched photograph of the proceedings leaves his mother “terribly upset.” The evidence of her son’s participation in the religious rite has been compromised, leaving her with nothing to show the relatives back east, nothing to fix the image of her idiosyncratic family. Identifying himself with the “gray blur” at the middle of sacramental snapshot, Donahue becomes the physical embodiment of Berryman’s withholding principle, an “absence” through which his mother’s “disappointment illumines the dark” (28).
Berryman’s withholding principle also appears in the subject matter of “Purple Ritual.” Titled after Ed Paschke’s painting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the poem broods over the poetic possibility of Oswald’s brutal act. In the closing section, entitled “Oswald at the Window,” Donahue theorizes the scenario in detail:
Oswald breaks the President’s literal power and announces the tyranny of the figurative. The perversity of this logic does not diminish the assertion that Oswald’s was the central act of the imagination. The assassin creating the void in which the images shine. The negation preceding the first flash of light. Oswald at the window. Inarticulate and errant. (31)
Here Oswald ascends, or rather descends, to the status of anti-sovereign and becomes the inarticulate author of an imaginary order called forth by physical negation. In assassinating the president, Oswald punctures the seamless shroud of American hegemony, making the absent presence of JFK’s body an aperture through which the light of the postwar world streams into the poet’s thinking.
Of all these parallels, this last one carries the most significance for Donahue’s corpus at large, since it falls directly within the poet’s Gnostic wheelhouse. In offering up a quintessentially Donahovian definition of the Gnostic problem, the poet opens his essay “Salvation under the Sign of Reagan: Poetry, Gnosis, and New York” with an infectious piece of mass culture, taken from the chorus of the Talking Heads’1980 classic “Once in a Lifetime.” For Donahue, the question posed by David Byrne — “Well, how did I get here?” — represents the essential Gnostic quandary. It points to the same uncertainty that led a group of second-century Christians to shun the material world and search out their spiritual bearings on a more transcendent plane. And couldn’t we say that Byrne’s question — “Well, how did I get here?” — plays by the rules of Berryman’s withholding principle? It situates the audience in an unfamiliar and broken world and instructs them to follow each ensuing lyric, as if what follows the question might hold an answer to set right the soul’s quest for a self.
Likewise, the Gnosticism Donahue associates with the Talking Heads, and their choral search for undivided daylight, finds its roots in the poet’s deep admiration for the opening line of Berryman’s The Dream Songs. For pages on end, Donahue interrogates the line, “Huffy Henry hid the day,” emphasizing its typographical irregularity, its positioning of a rhetorical double, and its suggestion of a nuclear apocalypse. However, the poet, so consumed with the possibilities of a Gnostic postmodernism, fails to notice Berryman’s gesture to occult concealment. After all, the epic begins with an act of withholding. In hiding the day, Henry conceals the diurnal light of divine presence, making our search for such truths possible. Or perhaps Donahue does not miss this reference, but instead decides that such awareness can only be assessed outside the dissertation, in the songs the dissertation inspires. In this way, it becomes the insight that dispatches the poet to his privileged long form, where the task, after all, is the same one that led Berryman to take up the unappeasable epic in the first place, “the construction of a world” (23).
“A Poetics of Virtuosity” considers — through the writing of A. R. Ammons, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Arthur Rimbaud, William Carlos Williams, and the obscure Trumbull Stickney — what it means to write against the dominant literary modes of your time. Of course, it is impossible to know when writing a poem what the “dominant mode” of your time exactly is; the argument here is that Williams, caught up in the fever of modernism and his impatience with “literary” lyricism — that which failed to account for the singularity of the poet’s body and the incompleteness of experience — worked through a poetics of “stuttering” (I take the term from Nathaniel Mackey) to achieve his own highly concrete, often fragmentary, poetics.
Implicit in this essay — first written in 1996, when I was working through my own apprenticeship as a poet in New York — is the argument that this modernist “fever” had largely abated in the postmodern moment, and that writers like Ammons had found ways to create “virtuoso” works because of a relative lack of concern with personal and poetic singularity, not to mention possessed of a richer philosophical understanding of the mind —> object relationship and theories of time that are at the foundations of Western philosophy. But I wasn’t reading much philosophy then despite some college schooling, so my use of such heavy terms such as “being,” “becoming,” “immanence,” and “flux” are loose. (I’ve tried to tighten up the vocabulary with this revision.)
“A Poetics of Virtuosity” tries to synthesize social concerns (how poems are read and accepted by readers and critics, how literary culture changes over time) with phenomenological concerns (how the poet interacts with a poem as it is being written, the effects of technology and physical disability on writing, what of a poem and the poem’s “content” resists the writing), though it is really only a suggestive sketch — a record of my enthusiasm from an earlier time. These interests, however, have gained ground in the wake of the rise of digital culture in the late ’90s, during the recent vogue for “speculative realist” philosophy (especially the writing of Quentin Meillassoux), disability studies, and the “return to the lyric” that I see happening with many poets today, particularly of the form that wants — in a strike against poststructuralism — to chart individual experience.
1. Questions of singularity
At the center of A. R. Ammons’s celebration of his poetic virtuosity in the opening stanzas of his long poem “Extremes and Moderations” is an irony, a certain element — one might call it the sense of poetic singularity, of the experience by the reader of a specific historical moment — which subtracts from the reading of the poem (this is no consideration of the “achievement” of the poem in its final form) once this irony is perceived. The irony is that while the poem is celebrating its own becoming, its physical entry into the matter, energy, and flux of the natural world, the poem also seems to be making approaches to other poems and discourses and then departing from them, in a way skimming what might be the “literary” surface of the literatures that have preceded him. While Ammons appears to be celebrating power, growth, and original perception (or the complexes of epistemological transcription), he is also engaged in an act of literary accumulation, or a sort of window-shopping that fails, or doesn’t decide, to get at essences — i.e. even to try to break out of the solipsistic cybernesis that is the government or system of the literary work itself. Ammons seems aware of this quality at certain moments in the work, and he has a pride or shame at shirking — like the poetic equivalent of a “slacker” — certain “heroic” responsibilities that his Romantic and modernist predecessors, in their bid for revolutionary status and epic significance, felt compelled to adopt. But there are a number of absences that are left for the reader to detect, literary correspondences that one would expect — in a poetics of total connectivity, and the expression in discursive language of this connectivity — Ammons to acknowledge in the poem.
The entire first page of “Extremes and Moderations” is worth citing since, though each line is rich with implications or even direct statements of poetic theory, the poem (as all of Ammons’s long poems) is something of a meandering soliloquy aimed at the typewriter, so that no single line is separable from the drama of the mass:
Hurly-burly: taking on whatever is about to get off, up the
slack, ready with prompt-copy for the reiteration, electronic
to inspect the fuzzy-buffoon comeback, picking up the diverse
gravel of mellifluous beauty, the world-replacing world
world-irradiating, lesser than but more outspoken:
constructing the stanza is not in my case exceedingly
difficult, variably invariable, permitting maximum change
within maximum stability, the flow-breaking four-liner, lattice
of the satisfactory fall, grid seepage, currents distracted
to side flow, multiple laterals that at some extreme spill
a shelf, ease back, hit the jolt of the central impulse: the
slow working-down of careful investigation, the run
diffused, swamped into variable action: my ideal’s a cold
clod clam calm, clam contained, nevertheless active in the
digestion, capable of dietary mirth, the sudden whisk, nearly
rollably spherical: ah, but friends, to be turned
loose on an accurate impulse! how handsome these stanzas are
beginning to look, open to the total acceptance, fracturing into
delight, tugging down the broad sweep, thrashing it into
particulars (within boundaries): diversity, however — as of
the concrete — is not ever-pleasing: I’ve seen fair mounds
of fine-stone at one end or the other of the highway construction
many times and been chiefly interested in the “hill”: but
abstraction is the bogey-boo of those incapable of it, while,
merrily, every abstractor brings the concrete up fine …
The very appearance of the stanzas, which Ammons celebrates in lines 17/18 of the excerpt, along with their dactylic, rolling rhythms, the quickness of movement from perception to perception (one thinks of Olson’s famous dictum from the “Projective Verse” essay, which this poem seems to satisfy better than many by Olson himself), and the tone of ecstatic liberation among the elements of his mind — an ecstasy (at least in terms of speed) that is absent, in general, from the measured cadences of a poet involved in a similar venture, John Ashbery — recall an early manifesto of the “ecstasy of communication” (in Baudrillard’s term), Arthur Rimbaud’s “Le bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”). Walter Benjamin and others have suggested that Rimbaud’s poem presents the very movement of history in its enactment of the bouncing of cork, flotsam, and jetsam on the “impassive rivers” of its narrative. Indeed, Rimbaud seems to acknowledge his own presence in the historical flux — the phantasmagoria that will play such a great role in the poetics of Eliot and Pound — in parts of the Season in Hell. “Extremes and Moderations,” beginning with the first word “Hurly-burly,” recalls a very particular stanza of “Le bateau ivre”:
Dans les clapotements furieux des marées,
Moi, l’autre hiver, plus sourd que les cerveaux d’enfants,
Je courus! Et les Péninsules démarrées
N’ont pas subi tohu-bohus plus triomphants.
Into the furious lashing of the tides,
More heedless than children’s brains, the other winter
I ran! And loosened peninsulas
Have not undergone a more triumphant hubbub.
Ammons celebrates his “hurly-burly” early in his poem, whereas Rimbaud waits until the gears are started up before he uses such a nonsense word, “tohu-bohus,” to describe the fractured, opaque quality of the poem’s concrete elements. “Tohu-bohus” enacts and witnesses chaos and incompletion, and may even hint at the dangers of such poetry as lifestyle — involving explorations of drugs, sexuality, and politics, for instance. Everything enters into the fray of Rimbaud’s whirlpool, which he nonetheless (as opposed to Ammons) attributes to nasty, extraordinary weather, something that is “plus triomphants,” and “plus sourd que les cerveaux d’enfants” — by contrast, Ammons is, like any writer who has found a groove (broken through writer’s block), on an “accurate impulse.” Both writers exhibit a very different relationship to geography: whereas Rimbaud sees the world crashing around him, a landscape through which he alternately floats or runs (but which needs the agitation from his mind to animate it), Ammons is aware of the integrity of his own mind’s operations — the very speed of immanence and excess — that underlies physical nature even when it appears monolithic, as in the case of mountains (mere blips on the geohistorical map), all of which is invisible to one unaware of the commerce of molecular exchange.
Though “Le bateau ivre” and “Extremes and Moderations” meet on other levels (especially later when Ammons is open to mock apostrophe: “O calligraphers, blue swallows, filigree the world / with figure, bring the reductions, the snakes unwinding, / the loops, tendrils, attachments, turn in necessity’s precision, / give us the highwire of the essential, the slippery concisions / of tense attentions!”), the distinction, in general, might be the difference between a poet, Rimbaud, who believes that he is engaged in a new act of literary creation, in the evolution of a new form, and the later Ammons who holds an ironic candle to the idea of original composition and is looking for an “accurate impulse” that will put him within the highways of communication with which he is already familiar through the writings of others.
Rimbaud writes in a letter to Paul Demany (the same one in which he described his theory of the “voyant” or seer): “And note carefully that if I were not afraid of making you spend more than sixty centimes on postage — I poor terrified one who for seven months have not had a single copper! — I would also give you my Lovers of Paris, one hundred hexameters, sir, and my Death of Paris, two hundred hexameters!” The very weight of his verses — as opposed to, say, a taboo content that would meet with disapproval by postal officials — will not permit him to mail them; this foregrounds the very materiality of the architecture and components of the verse, word and paper. One notes the almost flip attitude to the unit of measure by this poet who remained, for much of his brief career, within classical French poetic meters, along with his very adolescent declaration of victory over the necessity to produce, to manufacture form — a victory that leads him to break with determinacy in his verse, and eventually with meter itself.
Taking this security as a context in which to place Ammons’s celebration of his own industry — in ll. 17/18 and ll. 6/7, he writes “constructing the stanza is not in my case exceedingly / difficult, variably invariable, permitting maximum change / within maximum stability” — one asks: from whence does this “stability” stem? Is he merely commenting on his deftness in creating a stanzaic form that is suited to himself, a “style” that allows him to proceed to occupy — or, considering his vexed paeans to “progress,” colonize — the page with his poem? Or is there, on the other hand, something that one can equate with the classical French hexameter, “variably invariable” and yet for the most part not exceeding certain bounds, that Ammons has adopted for his text? And is there, consequently, a zone of critical approval waiting for the arrival of his poem to fulfill its requirements?
2. Skirting Parnassus
There are other poets that Ammons meets in the space he has created by his stanzas. For example, lines 13–16 — “my ideal’s a cold / clod clam calm, clam contained, nevertheless active in the / digestion, capable of dietary mirth, the sudden whisk, nearly / rollably spherical: ah” — hearken to Hopkins, “The Windover” especially:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on a swing
Again, the distinction between Ammons and the earlier poet may lie in their relationship to the question of the singularity of their poetic projects. There is much to suggest in Hopkins’s letters on poetic theory that he was obsessed with the idea of the singularity of the poem on all levels, from the syllable to the line. In terms of his relationship to the “canon,” Hopkins had a unique attitude in a time when literary decorum (as preached by his friends Canon Dixon and Robert Bridges) was the goal of the day. For example, he wrote in a letter: “The effect of studying masterpieces is to make me admire and do otherwise. So it must be on every original artist to some degree, and on me to a marked degree. Perhaps then more reading would only refine my singularity, which is not what you want.” Ammons writes, on the contrary, that “diversity, however — as of / the concrete — is not ever-pleasing,” and though this may be a statement on the poetic image, or on the uniqueness of the object perceived on an empirical level in opposition to all other “things” — that the interchange of atoms through time denies any object any sovereignty over another, that it is all contained in a web of barter or intercommunication — it also translates into a theory of the poem as one among many discourses, permeable on all levels. This makes Ammons’s line “cold / clod clam calm, clam contained” something of a slide or skim through the poetics of Hopkins (and not merely the alliterative tradition, since the element of near-parody and the level of syntactic ambiguity is extreme), as if he were collaborating with Hopkins on some level, or “getting off” in this brief encounter with Hopkins, only then quickly to depart, not unlike the falcon in Hopkins’s own poem.
Hopkins makes series of distinctions in his writing on poetics that may play a useful role in determining a theory of this sort of virtuosity in poetry, its relationship to the acceptance of a work by the public, and the hindrance it may create for the modern poet when it comes to creating works of “singularity.” In a letter to Alexander Baillie, Hopkins describes an essay that he may write for a magazine titled, ironically in this context, the Hexameron:
I think then the language of verse may be divided into three kinds. The first and highest is poetry proper, the language of inspiration. The word inspiration need cause no difficulty. I mean by it the mood of great, abnormal in fact, mental acuteness, either energetic or receptive, according as the thoughts which arise in it seem generated by a stress and action of the brain, or to strike into it unasked. This mood arises from various causes, physical generally, as good health or state of the air or, prosaic as it is, length of time after a meal. […]
The second kind I call Parnassian. It can only be spoken by poets, but is not in the highest sense poetry. It does not require the mood of mind in which the poetry of inspiration is written. It is spoken on and from the level of a poet’s mind, not, as in the other case, when the inspiration which is the gift of genius raises him above himself. […] Parnassian then is that language which genius speaks as fitted to its exaltation, and place among other genius, but does not sing […] in its flights. Great men, poets I mean, have each their own dialect as it were of Parnassian, formed generally as they go on writing, and at last, — this is the point to be marked — they can see things in this Parnassian way and describe them in this Parnassian tongue, without further effort of inspiration. […] [In] Parnassian pieces you feel that if you were the poet you could have gone as he has done, you see yourself doing it, only with the difference that if you actually try you find you cannot write his Parnassian. […]
There is a higher sort of Parnassian which I call Castalian, or it may be thought the lowest kind of inspiration. Beautiful poems may be written wholly in it. Its peculiarity is that though you can hardly conceive yourself having written in it, if in the poet’s place, yet it is too characteristic of the poet, too so-and-so-all-over-ish, to be quite inspiration.
Much resonates in these passages by Hopkins with the poetics of Ammons as they have been described so far. For example, Hopkins writes of Parnassian being “as fitted to its exaltation, and place among other genius, but does not sing,” which implies (though Hopkins writes of genius in the singular here, not in the expected plural) that the Parnassian mode is a place of converse among other poets, this place being Parnassus itself. Parnassus is, in this way, decidedly postmodern in nature, with its suggestions of constant intercommunication and flux (much postmodern theory, indeed, seems to be poetry written in a Parnassian mode, a locus from which deconstruction of the apparent solidity of literary objects can occur). That the Parnassian mode is one that “does not sing” is also relevant to Ammons, though one might turn to Tape for the Turn of the Year, with its balked invocations to the muse, for his own use of the word. “Singing,” along with invocations to the muse and the relation of heroic feats, then becomes something associated with the past, and is approached with a great deal of skepticism; it is a form of performance that has become dated, or which one wishes to keep hidden, perhaps because of the very hubris of poetic virtuosity itself — like any sort of promiscuity, a thing one doesn’t advertise.
This isn’t to say that Ammons always writes Parnassian poetry; on the contrary, Parnassian poetry can contain many lines of inspiration (as Hopkins notes when he quotes several lines of Tennyson), and Ammons’s poem is indeed everything that it sets out to be — a sonic and visual, not to mention intellectual, roller-coaster. The interesting distinction between Ammons and Hopkins (who revised all the Parnassian out of his work) or Rimbaud (who wrote, famously, that the poet “exhausts all poisons in himself and keeps only their quintessences”) is the surrender of the former to the physical forces involved in the production of his work, which he appears to understand and theorize, and his resignation in the face of the eventual dissolution of his enterprise once it takes its place among other works within the intelligence of a knowledgeable reader. One might call this, after Harold Bloom, the “anxiety of influence,” and yet it is a marked lack of anxiety that characterizes Ammons; he is merely speaking, in his way, in a room full of poets about the earth and air, himself, and the interchanges of the world, unconcerned with the historical uniqueness of each line of expression, but rather anticipating — at all moments — the abundant fruition (and function) of the whole.
For this reason, Ammons’s longer poems seem, for the most part, unique and a lot more interesting than his shorter ones, since Ammons is apparently much more excited about the architectures of larger works, their excessiveness and exuberance and how they will hang over the course of several pages, than with the microscopic organization and singularity of words in a very short poem, many of which could have been written, one might say, by Williams or even Robert Creeley. Ammons is, of course, famous for short poems, and he is by no means ignorant of “microscopic organization” — it is, in fact, the shuttling back and forth between the macro and micro that is a thrill in his work. But the longer works seem to comprise worlds within themselves, claim greater stakes, if not in the illuminations of their contents, at least in their size and comprehensiveness, and their aspiration to poetic immortality (along with a cordial, even “decorous,” relationship to the canon).
3. Fears of abstraction
A third poet that makes his very clear appearance in the opening stanzas of “Extremes and Moderations” is the most obvious: Williams. Indeed, Williams could be said to be most responsible for Ammons’s ability to compose such impressive-looking stanzas without any real regard for metrical regularity: they merely must appear like, say, hexameters, but they can run from fourteen syllables to nineteen, and from a potentially “scannable” line like “rollably spherical: ah, but friends, to be turned” to the prose-like “constructing the stanza is not in my case exceedingly / difficult” — still scannable, but a step down in sonic charge from the previous, highly alliterative lines. One wonders whether the “maximum stability” of line 8 could not, indeed, be all accredited to Williams’s experiments with typewriter lineation (and the subsequent critical approval of them), for example in poems such as “The Dance” (with its repetitions of modest words, that are, indeed, the theory of their existence) or “The Yachts” with its own invocations of the weather and its metaphoric reading of the approach of “history” on the singular moment of the poem. The “variably invariable” nature of Ammons’s stanzas easily recall Williams’s own paradoxical theory of the “variable foot,” which he developed late in life and which he saw as a contrast to the self-contradictory, he felt, concept of “vers libre.” Ammons takes complete advantage of this paradox, along with the lowered expectations of his readers for metrical regularity.
However, it is at the last moments of the stanzas quoted above from “Extremes and Moderations” that Ammons truly meets Williams, this time in a bit of a critical manner. He writes: “but / abstraction is the bogey-boo of those incapable of it, while, / merrily, every abstractor brings the concrete up fine. ” Ammons could be criticizing his own contemporaries here, especially those teaching creative writing classes at the time who might be, in the manner of Pound, plugging their students to “go in fear of abstractions” and to court the “deep image.” The dig at Williams, though, is of a type that some critics (including his friend Pound) have leveled against him, which is that he didn’t know how to think in the abstract, nor could he theorize his poetics adequately as much as he wanted to. Therefore, he not only “feared” abstractions but also ignored them entirely, or muffed up whatever engagement (as in the prose sections of “Spring and All”) he may have had with it.
But Williams’s “fear” of abstractions may, in fact, have been a result of a rather early flirtation with virtuosity. Though the general public no longer has access to Williams’s very early poems written in his mid-twenties, it is clear that he was capable of some effusive, but often rather bland, sonority, not unlike his friend Pound, who wrote a sonnet a day for an entire year during his apprenticeship. The following is from a poem published when Williams was thirty, called “The Wanderer: A Rococo Study [First Version],” from the section titled “Advent”:
But one day crossing the ferry
With the great towers of Manhattan before me,
Out at the prow with the sea-wind blowing
I had been wearying many questions
Which she had put on to try me:
How shall I be a mirror to this modernity?
When, in a rush, dragging
A blunt boat on the yielding river —
Suddenly I saw her! and she waved me
From the white wet in midst of her playing!
She cried me, “Haia! here I am son!
See how strong my little finger! Can I not swim well?
I can fly, too!” and with that a great sea-gull
Went to the left, vanishing with a wild cry.
But in my mind all the persons of godhead
There are suggestions of Whitman in these lines, and even Tennyson or Pound’s “The Return” (note the odd “Haia!”) or his version of “The Seafarer” (“A blunt boat on the yielding river … and she waved me / from the white wet”). What is unusual about “Advent” in general, however, is that it does not seem concerned with literary associations as much as it might want to be “allusive” and echo accurately, but rather insists on its spoken innocence, a virginity of statement. (Indeed, this virginity is the subject of the poem, since this woman is clearly a prostitute, and it is she that shows him in his own old age — she becomes both the Beatrice and Virgil to his Dante, in a way — and later provides him with youth.)
Williams asks how he will mirror modernity, but it is clear that, though he felt the egotistic, youthful urge to simply overwrite modernity — make it spin, in the manner of Rimbaud — and shout his singularity into the wind, he doesn’t have the knowledge, the skill, or the daring (sexual and otherwise) to take it full tilt, and he may, in fact, have simply been too old and assimilated. He was clearly at a crossroads, for he was not going to theorize his position as a “latecomer” in the manner of, say, Ammons or Ashbery, for whom pastiche was an untroubled option, and yet he didn’t have the brashness of a Rimbaud or García Lorca, and may have been too “socialized” to write from their perspective of sexual, political, and artistic alienation. Nonetheless, Williams could be said to have sided with the latter two, for he struggled to maintain the “virginity” or historical singularity of his statement even if he had to sacrifice a large production of long — virtuoso — works.
The curious absence of the preposition “to” in lines 9 and 11 sends one back to the phrase “try me” in line 5, which reads initially as a colloquial statement meaning “challenge me” but is rendered strange here, evoking the more literal reading of “put me on trial.” The absence of these prepositions, along with the unique rhythms that their absence creates — the repetitions of “me” bring the voice back in the throat again and again, as if trying to nail down the tent flaps that are being blown by the very virtuosity of the verse — suggest the risks that the future poet will take to foreground the minutiae of rhythmic content despite the thrust of the whole (few of the later poems will have this sort of easy flow, or when they do, Williams will describe the “dance” as it is occurring). These absent prepositions point to Williams’s very relationship to the grapheme, the typographical presence (or image) of words on the page, for his struggle, as it appears here, is part of his own divorce from older forms of poetry as mnemonic in structure — as “song” — and his distrust of the urge of a garrulity over specifics of rhythmic content. Williams put rhythmic stops to his facility in this section of “The Wanderer” to break the flow, and discovered, at the same time, his most distinctive rhythms, as he also moves, famously, to the use of “things” to keep his poem firmly rooted a posteriori — a “thing” being everything from an image, a grapheme, a preposition, or a very concrete enjambment, all of which he orchestrates very specifically in his later poems.
The breakthrough for Williams, of course, comes with his encounter with Cubist art and with the circle of Alfred Stieglitz, but also with his attention to the typewriter and the permanence his words acquired once on the page — a type of cybernetic exchange Ammons (not to mention O’Hara and Creeley) will later exploit. The signal work is Kora In Hell, “improvisations” written in a white heat — “slapdash,” one might say, with little revision, recalling the mental and sensorial acquisitions of the day:
To you! whoever you are, wherever you are! (But I know where you are!) There’s Durer’s “Nemesis” naked on her sphere over the little town by the river — except she’s too old. There’s a dancing burgess by Tenier and Villon’s maitress — after he’d gone bald and was shin pocked and toothless: she that had him ducked in the sewage drain. Then there’s that miller’s daughter of “buttocks broad and breastes high.” Something of Nietzsche, something of the good Samaritan, something of the devil himself, — can cut a caper of a fashion, my fashion! Hey you, the dance! Squat. Leap. Hops to the left. Chin — ha! — sideways! Stand up, stand up ma bonne! you’ll break my backbone. So again! — and so forth till we’re sweat soaked.
Williams mentions Durer, Nietzsche, Tenier, and Villon, and yet doesn’t enter into the sort of measured appraisal of art that the later series Pictures from Brueghel manifests. Nor does he elaborate, as he does in the prose of Spring and All, on the usefulness of the poetics or philosophy of the artists and writers. He also appears to be quoting some poem of Middle English, along with some French, which might appear unusual in a poet with such a difficult relationship to learning. However, the “thingness” of the inclusion of these elements, along with such observations as “after he’d gone bald and was shin pocked and toothless,” points to the “concrete” aspect of Williams’s poetics. Even in such long works such as The Desert Music and Paterson, Williams does not engage in a celebration of his virtuosity, nor does he, conversely, appear to be conscious of his relationship to other poetics — which is to say he achieves the singularity of expression he was looking for earlier by excising both an easy, coherent garrulity, along with lyrical abstraction. Even the apostrophe — “To you!” — is so inverted, turned back on its mere inclusion, that one doesn’t feel he is parodying so much as denying the efficacy of address.
Though one might want to call this, and the rest of Kora in Hell, a grand performance on Williams’s part, it is very different from that of Ammons: Williams draws all attention away from himself, and even the creation of the poem, and appears stumped — rendered mute — by the being of what he includes, whereas Ammons calls attention to the becoming of the poem, in anticipation of the grand architecture of its completion, and draws attention repeatedly to his mind operating on and in the poem, in nature, and even among his literary predecessors, whom he doesn’t, as has been noted earlier, name. Williams mentions his predecessors and artistic inspirations but refuses to theorize or explain why they are there — he resists the flow of intertextuality. Ammons is aware of where he’s going, knows with whom he is conversing, and is unafraid of retreading some previously explored ground — of being, in a sense, Parnassian for the sake of continuing fecundity.
4. American Symbolism
Ammons is in the position of being a fence-sitter of sorts, one who refuses to be involved in many of the most experimental postmodern rhetorics and modes of praxis, those of the Language poets, for example, and yet who doesn’t fit into any sort of neo-classicist or -formalist, late confessional, or even late-Beat poetics that formed much of mass American verse. The split might be a question of opacity: as one can tell, for instance, in the passage from Kora in Hell quoted above, Williams was willing to leave the reader in the dark regarding specific meanings, finding “meaning” in the appearance of the words themselves within the poem, a sort of opacity that the familiar “voice” and philosophy of Ammons — they are part of every poem — interpret and thereby render amenable. However, there is another issue, and that, again, has to do with virtuosity. For Williams — if he was going to write using his line at that time in American verse — could not have been a virtuoso, for virtuosity has to be partially defined by the people willing to be in awe of the performance. Virtuosity is shaped, one might say, by fame or its potential — a possibility existing in the habitus (in Bourdieu’s term) of the poetry scene of his time.
There is a “lost generation” of poets who attempted, in the early part of the twentieth century, to incorporate French Symbolist aesthetics into American poetry, two of whom, George Cabot Lodge and Trumbull Stickney, were born only four years before Wallace Stevens (neither lived into the 1920s). Stickney was a Harvard graduate, a scholar of Greek philosophy and Sanskrit, and the first American to receive a doctorate in literature from the Sorbonne; he died of a brain tumor in 1904. His good friend Cabot Lodge died five years later of ptomaine poisoning. While it would be presumptuous to say that Stickney defined the poetics of his day, he was considered one of the better practitioners of the time, and in this way his poems (along with the education and experience that went into them) could be used as establishing values (in the way Bryant did for Whitman) for what was understood as poetic success. The following is from an untitled poem by Stickney which begins “The Autumn’s done”:
One of these days I know, just as they sadden
Spangling awhile the rose and yellow sky,
You’ll go away and watch the country gladden
Softly to Italy.
There, take this ring of gold — and when your fancy
Glides by to songs under the autumn moon
Where like unfurling silks of necromancy
Lies out the white lagoon,
Throw it away, that it be mine no longer.
Italian, give it back to Italy,
I will not have thy Past about me stronger
Than what is yet to be.
Nay, hurry home to sleep. The ferns are rigid
With hoar, and dark and denser hangs the mist;
It freezes and the stars quaver in frigid
Heaven of amethyst.
Down thro’ San Vito and the land Cadore,
To which — when closed the pestered city gate —
The dying Titian strained, homeward from glory,
Home from eternal fate;
Down where the outlines have a softer meaning —
Willow and clematis, the fruit and grain;
And the last mountain height sinks greening
Into the golden plain, —
To Venice. There the October days purpureal
Fall down to earth from Heaven wearily, —
And wounded at the last, insatiate Uriel
Dies on the flaming sea. —
One of these days you’ll leave me in the mountains,
For I go Northward, not to see this year
Gold Italy and her wind-silvered plantains,
But there the sad and sere —
I go elsewhere … 
As these lines — quite skillful and beautiful once the shock of the form has passed, and the absence of Eliotic irony is not bemoaned — demonstrate, there was a whole different set of priorities for the virtuoso poet of Stickney’s time. Some of them include, beside the obvious mastery of the Sapphic form, a sort of Arthurian or Symbolist dimension (the “ring of gold” of l. 5), an ability to rhyme richly (“when your fancy” and “necromancy”), a rhetorical high-mindedness and grace (l. 10), an ability to evoke the crepuscular beauties of nature (ll. 13–16, 21–24), mastery of cultural allusion (l. 19 and l. 27), and the use of suggestive, polysyllabic words (“necromancy” and “purpureal”). None of these attributes completely disappeared after Williams — much of this can appear in Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht, James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, or Derek Walcott, for example — but it is useful to think that the literary culture of Williams’s time in the decades during which he was developing his poetics — prior to the entire apparatus of, say, the New American poetries (and their critical acceptance) — was dominated by writing of this nature.
One could argue that Pound himself followed in a consistent manner the priorities inherent in Stickney’s poetics (not to mention Browning and Yeats) and had to wait even longer than Williams to discover his “modernist” method. Stickney offers, in any case, a glimpse of what Williams may have had, in the superego of his culture, as the image of virtuosity; it is remarkable how total his rejection of this apparatus was as opposed to Stevens and even Hart Crane, who played with modifying classical European meters, along with translating Symbolism and newer French modes into American poetry.
William Carlos Williams.
5. Birth of the stutter
Williams was destined to be a stutterer — a producer of fragmentary shorter works — since his poetics was always coming from place of incompleteness, of reduction to elements, of the paring down of his desires to small examples of “nonliterary” (if Stickney is “literary”) writing, and of the devotion to New Jersey speech-based rhythms and content. Though it appears, with hindsight, that it should have been much easier for him, as it was, apparently, for Ammons, to write long poems that “ride” on the stream of speech — making deft approaches to other poetics and “open to the total acceptance” — Williams could not have survived, as a theorist or philosopher, on such a stage, for not only did he not have the dimmest hope for help from high quarters (no Harold Bloom or Yvor Winters), he would have felt, writing in his totally new mode, that he was only digging deeper into the typewriter, probably without even the hope of a readership.
Nathaniel Mackey’s essay “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol” describes the aborted collaborative novel that Williams was writing with the novelist Bucklin Moon (with whom Williams wanted to publish an interracial literary magazine, though Moon was white) and an editor of a proletarian magazine called Blast, Fred Miller. The novel was called Man Orchid, and it concerned Wray Douglas, a “black-white protagonist” who is partially based on Bucklin Moon himself. Mackey writes of Man Orchid:
Want of resolution and the stubborn problematics of heterogeneity are what Man Orchid most effectively expresses, the latter symptomized by the solipsistic quality of the work and the former a would-be flight from the resolute self (false resolution) that the solipsism indulges even as it eschews. Two white writers sit down to create a black protagonist whose model is another white writer.
Moon himself was a stutterer, and the gist of part of the novel appeared to be that Douglas felt he would lose his stutter were he to become a musician. Because Williams’s chapters were written in the Kora in Hell style (at least the parts Mackey quotes), it is hard to gauge what exactly is happening, or would have happened should it have been finished. However, Mackey’s description is suggestive:
Throughout Man Orchid … the writer’s emulation of the musician causes rather than cures the stutter. Imitating the spontaneity of improvisatory music, Williams and Miller approach the typewriter as a musical keyboard on which they extemporize “without changing a word.” Wrong “notes” are left as they are rather than erased, though the right ones do eventually get “played” in most cases. This results in a repetitiveness and a halting, staccato gesture reminiscent of a stutterer’s effort to get out what he wants to say. Thus, Williams: “American poetry was on its way to great distinction — when the blight of Eliot’s popular verse fell pon — upon the gasping universities — who hadN8t hadN8t hadn’t tasted the Thames water for nearly a hundred years.” By disrupting fluency and coherence available to them Williams and Miller attempt to get in touch with what that coherence excludes, “the chaos against which that pattern was conceived.” This friendly relationship with incoherence, however, constitutes a gesture toward but not an attainment of the otherness to which it aspires, an otherness to which access can only be analogically gotten. Man Orchid, to make the obvious point, is a piece of writing, not a piece of music. Nor, as I have already noted, is the color line crossed. The stutter is a two-way witness that on one hand symbolizes a need to go beyond the confines of an exclusionary order, while on the other confessing to its at best only limited success at doing so. The impediments to the passage it seeks are acknowledged if not annulled, attested to by exactly the gesture that would overcome them if it could.
A valuable distinction to make, in considering this passage, is that the music Williams and Miller wanted to recreate with their novel was jazz, not classical — in which, as Amiri Baraka notes in Blues People, the noises, false-notes, and excessiveness of improvisatory gesture are “worked out” in revision and avoided through rehearsal. In this way, Williams understands the poetics and politics of jazz rather early, which is that the excluded noises, fizzes, and failed gestures of jazz are, in many ways, the content of its oppositionality, and they eventually become part of the arsenal Williams will use against a verse like Stickney’s or Eliot’s.
Williams’s own relationship to the virtuosity of Eliot is reinscribed here (touchingly, if one has read Williams’s typewritten drafts of late Paterson poems, written after several strokes and replete with “errors”) in the mistakes the faulty nerves of his hand render permanent on the typewritten page in trying to reach, like jumping the octave on a clarinet, the apostrophe on his typewriter keyboard. As Mackey notes, there was a “fluency and coherence available to them,” a language out there in the habitus which they could adopt and decorously transcend, gaining quick “authorhood” (a priority in collaboration), but it was one they chose to forego. This was occurring in a time when the valorization of accident could not, itself, be said to have become part of the vocabulary of the literary establishment or, after John Cage, an “established” avant-garde. Those 8’s in the text offer, indeed, a backstage glance at the development of Williams’s poetic, for they point to the necessary series of responses, the types of corrections and attendances, involved in typing that still seemed a new technology — like the porcelain bathtub described in section XXI of Kora in Hell— to a poet early in the century.
An interesting aspect of this “stutter” is the role it plays in this collaborative work written by two white men about a “black-white” protagonist, one of whom they fail to reach, so that the stutter becomes a “two-way witness” that “symbolizes a need to go beyond an exclusionary order” but fails to do so. That this order could be sexual in nature — and that there is a homosexual subtext to the collaboration — is implied not only by Mackey’s metaphors of “passages” but by Williams’s poem “Ol’ Bunk’s Band,” about New Orleans trumpeter Bunk Johnson, with its repetitions of “These are men!,” which may suggest an awakening in Williams not only to the “humanity” of African Americans (in a time when “primitivism” and other Eurocentric mystifications, along with the American legal code, jammed this communication) when experiencing the performance but to masculinity objectified itself. How this translates into Williams’s feelings about women and the “exclusionary order” in which he felt confined is less complicated, considering that he was married (to a woman whom he did not love at first, but who was the sister of his first great love) and a father, and yet was circulating, perhaps every weekend, among New York’s artistic milieus in which sexual attitudes were, one presumes, much relaxed.
Whether the “other” is Eliot, Stickney, the “black-white protagonist,” jazz musicians, or the woman of “The Wanderer” and later poems, the significance of the stutter is clear. It divorces him from fluency, from easy commerce with society, and yet it is through the stutter that he meets the artifact of his writing itself and acknowledges the text before him (confirming that it is not, for instance, merely thought on a page). The stutter — whether in the form of sharp enjambment, interruption of thought by image, dropped prepositions or typos, is also his signature stamped, quite literally, on the page of his production, his guarantor of self-identification within the poem, along with the othering of the poem itself — the poem’s place in being. At the same time, it is Williams’s insurance that he is not writing, in Hopkins’s term, “Parnassian” verse, and even excludes him from the orders of such quality distinctions that Hopkins makes in his letters, for, indeed, such stuttering could not be taken as “inspiration” — at least in the Romantic or Victorian sense.
There are many complex features of a poetics of virtuosity that distinguish it from a mere facility on the one hand, or a catering to public taste on the other, though virtuosity may have something to do with both. Virtuosity is, indeed, the area in which this difficult relationship to the “public” is enacted and mostly resolved, rather than problematized by means of opacity, the “stutter,” and the closure that is aggravated and foregrounded by the fragment which, by its nature, provides an abrupt departure rather than a calm farewell. Virtuosity is not bad by any means; the very experience of it, as in “Extremes and Moderations,” or in the often beautiful poem by Stickney, inspires wonder not only in the poet but also in the cultural moment in which the poem was written, even if it is the exotic present.
However, there is a sacrifice attendant to virtuosity, and in the postmodern variety, this sacrifice has to do with an estrangement from the experimental furor that was modernism — not itself necessarily characterized by virtuosity. Pound’s Cantos, for instance, are at their worst when Pound is most confident that he is putting his skills to “use” (the “Chinese” Cantos, or the later ones which resemble his letters), and their best when he is trying something “new” — the translations, parts of the Pisan sequence (when his desperation pierced the tissue of the confidence in his method), or the “Usura” Canto (mating reductive economics with the muse), or even the “Hell” Cantos, when he seemed to be exploring Surrealism and condemning English politicians. One might suggest that modernist artists who did resolve the artistic dilemmas of their work, such as Bertolt Brecht, never became “virtuosos” entirely because of the recalcitrance of the political situation and their need for political (as opposed to critical or social) feedback to determine their efficacy.
John Berger’s writing in The Success and Failure of Picasso on Picasso’s eventual inability to “find a subject” is suggestive of this point about virtuosity in relation to the experimental modes of modernism. Berger writes of the 1927 Figure:
Although superficially the picture may look like a Cubist collage, there is no interest here in structure or the dimensions of time and space; it is obsessionally, impatiently sexual. But its sexuality is without a subject. It is as though this picture were crying out for a Leda and the Swan, or a Nymph and Shepherd, or a Venus, to be given a form. But there is nobody to call that form into being, nobody to name it and separate it from Picasso by believing in it. What Picasso is expressing here becomes absurd because there is nothing to resist him: neither the subject, nor his awareness of reality as understood by others. Without such resistance the whole of Shakespeare’s Lear would be no more than a death-rattle.
Though it is unclear, in this passage, what Berger means by “his awareness of reality as understood by others,” he is not suggesting that Picasso became schizophrenic, engaging in an entirely solipsistic enterprise. Rather, Picasso seemed no longer to care about the “shock” value of what he was producing, which is a matter of personal concern on the part of the artist, but is also attributable to an audience (in 1927) being more accustomed to the vicissitudes of artistic innovation. Picasso, thus, achieved virtuosity despite the extraordinary variety, and exploratory nature, of his later production. Indeed, the fecund stream of works produced by Picasso during and following his neoclassical phase was also a series of flirtations — as is the case in Ammons’s “Extremes and Moderations” — with predecessors, though one would not accuse Picasso of merely recycling.
This flirting didn’t occur with Williams, for when he wrote poorly, it was generally a failed experiment — something too thin or unrealized, an unsuccessful attempt at new form, a failure to put into words the experience with an object, perhaps the words themselves — or part of a collage of earlier modes that he had explored that formed into a longer poem, but which he failed to attend to on the level of particulars. Williams never wrote long poems in a single style but “stuttered” through them the way he stuttered in his prosody; the last poems of Pictures from Brueghel, especially “Asphodel,” are obvious exceptions, but even then he was convinced he was working in a new mode — that he was continuing, with his investigation of the “variable foot,” the groundbreaking struggles of his youth and that there was conversation (a “two-way witness”) going on.
Virtuosity — with the sexual overtones noted by Berger — is the result of something like narcissism, since the “other” ceases to resist one’s gaze, a gaze that has ceased, in fact, to colonize, to be active in exploiting an object-turned-subject. The result of this is, of course, a sort of paranoia and the hearing of voices, especially that of peers and predecessors. In the case of Hopkins, what “resists” is clear: it is the falcon, or it is God, or both, approaching him from outside and providing him with the moment that calls forth the poem, and himself, out of a state of “normal” existence. Hopkins’s religious vows obviously played a role in this; the “poet” in Hopkins — both wary of literary reputation, and wary of the smug gratifications of writing well — recognized the value of his religion as resistance itself. Williams may have recognized his practice as a pediatrician in this same way, and he certainly understood New Jersey as being defiantly outside the mainstream of urban artistic culture. What resisted Rimbaud was not only his youth, his mother, poverty, and the provincial town of Charleville, but may have been a disgust with maturity and a literary career itself. Like Hopkins, Rimbaud experienced virtuosity, living within the accelerated rush of time that characterizes a poetics of extraordinarily high stimulation, but he gave it up, or let it sit stagnant, rather than mining it so as to greet literary fame in his lifetime.
One moves beyond a state of modesty once virtuosity has been achieved, finding that the ecstasy of leisure that poetry affords is reward enough, while others choose to maintain this modesty (or grow uncomfortable without it) and remain in a state of stuttering, of awe at the very resistance of material and subject to the work. Once again, Williams (who was, as has been suggested, accused of being unable to theorize) voices this element of counter-virtuosity, and in a way speaks for much of the Modernist enterprise:
The only means he has to give value to life is to recognize it with the imagination and name it; this is so. To repeat and repeat the thing without naming
it is only to dull the sense and results in frustration.
this makes the artist prey of life. He is easy to attack.
I think often of my earlier work and what it cost me not to have been clear.
I acknowledge I have moved chaotically about refusing or rejecting most things,
seldom accepting values or acknowledging anything.
because I early recognized the futility of acquisitive understanding and at the same time rejected religious dogmatism. My whole life
has been spent (so far) in seeking to place a value upon experience and the objects
of experience that would satisfy my sense of inclusiveness without redundancy — completeness, lack of frustration with the liberty of choice; the things which the
pursuit of “art” offers —
But though I have felt “free” only in the presence of works of the
imagination, knowing the quickening of the sense which came of it, and though
this experience has held me firm at such times, yet being of a slow but accurate understanding, I have not always been able to complete the intellectual steps
which would make me firm in the position.
So most of my life has been lived in hell — a hell of repression lit by
flashes of inspiration, when a poem such as this or that would appear
Much of Williams’s relationship to virtuosity — as it has come to be formed in his mind — is exhibited here. “To repeat and repeat without naming it” is obviously a negative quality of a work, and yet it is ironic that repetition, whether inspired by Steinian poetics or by the process-oriented literature of writers of the Oulipo group, has since become such a strong aspect of postmodern poetics. That the artist is “prey to life” suggests not only Williams’s still strong ability to objectify his experience (an ability seen as a result of denseness by his friend Pound, who admired him for it), but his difference, again, with postmodern poets — like Ammons, Ashbery and, say, Bruce Andrews or Lyn Hejinian — in that he has no ready theory with which to gird himself, or to use as a map, when involved in his writing, or even when taking a walk, where one could be confronted with everything from a revelation about the modern experience to the seductions of a flower. His distrust of “acquisitive understanding” — does he mean knowledge of Greek and Latin, and can he also mean knowledge of physics? — puts him at a distance from his successor, Ammons, for whom “inclusiveness” is an issue, but who might have a more sympathetic relationship to redundancy and repetition — whether it be of stanza (where it is impressive, and fits into the architecture), or of short poems.
In this way, Williams defines a poetics of virtuosity by the fact that it could not be at that time; there was no way simply to perform the modernist “composition,” since one had no tools, no forbears, to weave into the textual whole. Or if one weaved, one would be destined to repeat, and not to see anything. “Seeing” was, at that time, of course, uncomplicated by the poetics of the fractured, schizophrenic “I” of postmodernism — which, generally, found the limits of being at the limits of language — a fracturing that allows, nonetheless, the “weave” of a work to reappear, as the poet no longer resists assimilation into the texture of the whole, but rather revels in his or her isolating, limning, or sharing a part of it (a convenient theory for the writers of long works). Ironically, however, Williams sets the framework in which later poets could operate in virtuoso ways, ways that are a great distance from the ethos of virtuosity implied by “The Autumn’s done.”
7. Missing bodies
A poetics of virtuosity is, in many ways, disembodied; that is, it doesn’t respond to the accidents of pains, of touch and spasm of the poet’s own body, but rather plays the body like an instrument, one which is general enough for ownership by almost anyone. In the poetics of Hopkins and Williams, language is, itself, approached like an alien body that one wants to touch but can’t, as if it were an instrument from Asia or Africa for which there are no available recordings to mimic, such that their relationship to the language becomes one of jerks and moans, rather than discourse. Incidentally, in a poetics of virtuosity is where one might locate the place of literary influence, for as Hopkins suggests, it is virtuoso “Parnassian” writing that gives the reader the sense that he or she can sit down and write in that mode. That literary influence is partially governed by the unspecificity of the body of the poet becomes clear in the following contrast, a rare moment in literature in which an “indecorous” and “unvirtuoso” performance is translated into a “laudable” performance. The first stanza is by Hopkins, the second by the critic and poet Sturge Moore in his book Style and Beauty in Literature:
How to kéep — is there ány any, is there none such,
nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid
or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, …
from vanishing away?
How to keep beauty? is there any way?
Is there nowhere any means to have it stay?
Will no bow or brooch or braid,
Brace or latch
Latch or catch
Or key to lock the door lend aid
Before beauty vanishes away?
Hopkins writes of his poem, “Back is not pretty, but it gives the feeling of physical constraint which I want,” and one, indeed, feels the back arch in the use of the word, not, in fact, unlike the convulsion that the missing “to’s” create in Williams’s “The Wanderer.” That Williams had to wait a long time before his “influence” could be felt supports this argument, for people can’t be “influenced” by fragmentary and indecorous material, since it offers no middle level, no user-friendly ground, on which to partake in conversation, and through which one can approach the body — for many merely the locus of fears and taboos, a constellation of dark corners — of the work. The Parnassian of such œuvres had to be demonstrated or described before influence (on a large scale) could occur, and it is for this reason Williams’s influence was split between academicians bent on bringing literature into order by focusing on the “American,” and those who, conversely, were engaged in exploring new sexualities, new politics, and drug-induced visions — the Beats and the American avant-garde of the fifties and sixties.
The state of virtuosity — both when it works, as in Ammons and Stickney, and even when it fails, as in early Williams and Sturge Moore — is a place of resolved tensions that are kept, nonetheless, taut, and it offers the locus that mirrors, rather than opposes, normative lifestyle, or perhaps (viewed from the radical wing) “socialization,” in which complaint and satisfaction mingle in constant yin yang opposition, though never surrendering to action. Virtuosity is, thus, a sort of democratic, accessible, and serial immortality, not unlike television or any form of an articulation of values that functions economically and, in a reproducible way, “creatively.” Consequently, it offers a way of writing against death, of talking over the inevitable end, a now clichéd explanation of what it is the writer is doing, but interesting when compared with the poetics of “stuttering,” which confronts the “other” in all of its sexual, social, and political guises, even if the “other” is the indeterminate word itself. A poetics of counter-virtuosity could then be called a writing into life, though not into literature.
2. The following is from “Conversations with Brecht,” an essay by Walter Benjamin: “On the other hand, Brecht compares Becher’s poem to Rimbaud’s [‘The Drunken Boat’]. In the latter, he thought, Marx and Lenin, too — had they read it — would have detected the great historical movement of which it is an expression. They would have recognized very clearly that it does not describe the perambulations of an eccentric stroller, but the vagabond flight of a person who can no longer endure the limits of his class, which — with the Crimean War, the Mexican adventure — was beginning to open up exotic parts of the world to its mercantile interest. To assimilate the gesture of the unfettered vagabond, putting his affair in the hands of chance and turning his back on society, was patently impossible for the stereotype of the proletarian fighter.” Benjamin, Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), 204.
3. “I liked stupid paintings, door panels, stage sets, back-drops for acrobats, signs, popular engravings, old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books with bad spelling, novels of our grandmothers, fairy tales, little books from childhood, old operas, ridiculous refrains, naive rhythms.” Arthur Rimbaud, Rimbaud, Complete Works and Selected Letters, trans. Wallace Fowlie (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 205. Here, like a proto-pop artist, Rimbaud plays homage to the detritus of a culture that moves with such agility beyond itself, corrupting quickly its past beliefs and aesthetics and accumulating its occasional productions, so that the recent present seems to outweigh the past in sheer informational abundance.
5. There is a pessimism involved in Ammons’s theories that derives from his belief that the world is being corrupted by pollutions, and hence “industrial” activity on all levels. Stanzas toward the end of “Extremes and Moderations” examine this view:
… at the poles the pilots see in the contrast the
sullied air’s worldwide: because of the circulations, water can
never be picked up for use except from its usages, where what
has gone in is not measured or determined: extreme calls to
extreme and moderation is losing its quality, its effect: the
artificial has taken on the complication of the natural and where
to take hold, how to let go, perplexes individual action: ruin
and gloom are falling off the shoulders of progress: blue-green
globe, we have tripped your balance and gone into exaggerated
possession; this seems to me the last poem written to the world
before its freshness capsizes and sinks into the slush: the
rampaging industrialists, the chemical devisers and manipulators
are forging tanks, filling vats of smoky horrors …
… common air moves over the slopes, and common rain’s
losing its heavenly clarity …
All elements of Ammons’s poetic, from the “global view” to his descriptions of interconnectivity, are present in this excerpt, but with an additional note of opposition that may be reminiscent of Blake or Pound. Note how the “freshness” of the early parts of his poem has disappeared — no more flirting with predecessors — as if his anger, and consequential recourse to a more polemic writing style, were analogous with the “slush” of “rampaging industrialists … chemical devisors and manipulators” (Selected Longer Poems, 65).
8. His famous theory of inscape is one example, about which he writes: “As air, melody, is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling ‘inscape’ is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive” (20).
10. The ubiquity of intertextuality is a postmodern cliché at this point, but is leant a certain strength considering Ammons’s theories of the physical universe, theories that don’t enter into, say, the language of Ashbery (for whom the artifice of nature-viewing, of pastoralism, is more an issue), but which link Ammons to writers like Hopkins and Rimbaud, who found their epiphanic inspirations in either the sighting of a falcon, or the very newness (certainly not literary) of a sense of adolescent, pre-societal (and hormonally charged) liberation, so that the poem’s singularity has its source in the experience of the objects of nature.
11. A few paragraphs later, he writes: “Now judging from my own experience I should say no author palls so much as Wordsworth; this is because he writes such an ‘intolerable deal of’ Parnassian,” a statement worth noting as there seems to be a turn, in Ammons and a number of postmodern poets, back to the egotistic sublime of Wordsworth, though the theory of the ego itself, and the relationship to autobiography, are indeed different.
12. Hopkins, A Hopkins Reader, 129–34. Hopkins goes on in the letter to describe another type of poetry, the “Olympian,” which is “the language of strong masculine genius which suddenly, as it were, forces its way into the domain of poetry, without naturally having a right there. Milman’s poetry is of this kind, I think, and Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel. But unusual poetry has a tendency to seem to so at first.” It’s strange that Hopkins wouldn’t pursue his definition of this type, since it appears that it is the category to which he belongs, along with Blake and, ironically considering the genderedness of his statements, Emily Dickinson.
13. Ammons is also one to celebrate his digestion (as was Byron in Don Juan), so that when one reads, in Hopkins, that the first mode of poetry, that of inspiration, may arise “from various causes, physical generally, as good health or state of the air or, prosaic as it is, length of time after a meal,” one sees both the down-to-earthness of the Jesuit’s understanding of his inspiration, but also his refusal to make the “prosaic” qualities of the production of his verse an excuse for garrulousness, overproduction, and writing in the Parnassian mode — or virtuosity itself.
And instantly down the mists of my eyes
There came crowds walking — men as visions
With expressionless, animate faces;
Empty men with shell-thin bodies
Jostling close above the gutter,
Hasting nowhere! And then, for the first time,
I really scented the sweat of her presence
And turning saw her and — fell back sickened!
Ominous, old, painted —
With bright lips and eyes of the street sort —
Her might strapped in by a corset
To give her age youth, perfect
In that will to be young she had covered
Her godhead to go beside me.
These lines are suggestive of Williams’s utter rejection of Eliot, the use he found in Dada to express his disgust and fascination (possibly misogynist, certainly sexual, in content) with physical decay, his turn away from Europe for models to describe the experience of “Broadway” (think of his later “I Saw the Figure”), and his later adoption of the term duende from Garcia Lorca, whose take on New York is not dissimilar. Contrast this with his own later, very short poem, so much more resonant and yet modest in tone, called “Arrival,” which begins, significantly, in medias res, from a place of ignorance and forgetfulness: “And yet one arrives somehow, / finds himself loosening the hooks of / her dress / in a strange bedroom — / feels the autumn / dropping its silk and linen leaves / about her ankles. / The tawdry veined body emerges / twisted upon itself / like a winter wind …!” Williams, Collected Poems, 29, 164.
17. Williams was actually commissioned to write a poem to be read quickly (by Bob Brown, creator of the “Readie,” a machine that propelled text past a viewfinder), for which he wrote something that was punctuated with colons like an Ammons’s poem, but which sounds like something from John Yau’s “Genghis Chan” sequence. It’s called “Readie Poem,” and runs: “Grace — face: hot — pot: lank — spank: meat — eat: hash — cash: sell — well: old — sold: sink — wink: deep — sleep: come — numb: dum — rum: some — bum.” Williams, Collected Poems, 356.
19. Revolution of the Word, ed. Jerome Rothenberg (New York: The Seabury Press, 1974), provides an image of the ferment of literary activity surrounding Williams in his most experimental periods. However, Williams himself had a difficult personal relationship with many members of the international avant-garde (especially Duchamp) and even with Imagism (with his distrust of Hellenism, his often Cubist or Dadaist poetics, and his exploration of staccato meters), so he was still well below the radar of the establishment. Bram Dijkstra’s Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969) is a fair historical account of Williams’s relationship not only to the Stieglitz group but also to the theories that were developed among them.
20. American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume 2 (New York: Library of America, 1993), 658–59. These are the last stanzas of the poem, which was probably, judging by the bracketed space that the editors included in an earlier part of the poem, incomplete and found in manuscript after his death. However, the poem probably ends with the ellipses, since the editors would have bracketed, one supposes, them as well — the notes don’t provide answers.
21.Stickney actually made some breaks with the elaborate, performative poetics implied by this excerpt, and may be considered a precursor of Imagism — particularly of T. E. Hulme’s brand — or “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” with the following short poem from Dramatic Fragments:
Sir, say no more.
Within me ’t is as if
The green and climbing eyesight of a cat
Crawled near my mind’s poor birds.
25. Stevens’s brief essay in Opus Posthumous in which he describes the “anti-poetic” versus the “Romantic” strains of Williams’s writing is suggestive, especially when one considers Stevens’s own relationship to Europe, the dissonant variety of his first volume Harmonium, and his use for, and addenda to, Williams in “Nuances on a Theme of Williams.”
27. Another aspect to this resistance is one that exists in an ethical or religious (specifically Roman Catholic) series of considerations, as the following passage by Sartre, quoted in Georges Bataille’s Literature and Evil (New York: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1985), suggests: “In order for liberty to be complete it has to be offered the choice … of being infinitely wrong. It is therefore unique in this whole universe committed to Good, but it must adhere totally to Good, maintain it and strengthen it in order to be able to plunge into Evil. And he who damns himself acquires a solitude which is a feeble image of the great solitude of the truly free man. In a certain sense he creates. In a universe where each element sacrifices itself in order to converge in the greatness of the whole, he brings out the singularity, that is to the say the rebelliousness, of a fragment or a detail. Thus something appears which did not exist before, which nothing can efface and which was in no way prepared by worldly materialism. It becomes a work of luxury, gratuitous and unpredictable” (36). The valorization of the fragmentary is interesting here in relation to Williams, for though he never acknowledged this sort of universe, the very proliferation of exclamation points in his writing, and the assurance of a near damnation that he felt by the literary world, especially by Eliot, suggests that he was aware of his breaching of ethical divides, his entering into an area of being that was not merely (as has been suggested so far) that of sexual or social eccentricity. The extraordinary faith that Williams had that the accidental, the minor, or the particular that occurs in his work had universal import suggests that he believed the very form of a poem had ethical import.