14 May 72
Curious dream in which yr name occurred — newspaper article, mentioned you (& Duncan McNaughton —!) as war correspondents in Vietnam — also simultaneously engaged in
geophysical investigation of “verves” — large stone ridges — or the people who lived among them —
unclear newsprint photographs accompanied — reports from Elsewhere —
Everything winds down to its finalé here at Tufts, amid a bit, finally, of real Spring — i.e. leaves flowers emergence (grass was here all along, actually) — I distrust pushing my truck for another transcontinental traversal, but a student I know’s driving west w/ his girl in a new VW bus in June, returning in August, I may very well travel w/ them — away, at any rate, from here for the summer —
The tape from yr reading here has a rather low volume level & a hum when the loudness is boosted, but the audience seems much much more vivacious than on the Brown tape — at any rate, worth saving (esp. since very little was duplicated in the two readings) — I’ll try to get it copied & bring it out in the summer — the quality of Bialy’s tape is definitely high grade (but what a cold sepulchral auditorium that was!) —
I seem to keep circling back on the Kansas/Missouri borderland all spring (Sauer once in a dream told me to attend to that area: specifically the Missouri side, a band abt. as deep as Sedalia — it seemed so obvious I didn’t pay much attention for a long time) — not that I really want to in every regard — I begin to feel like the Chamber of Commerce Tourist Bureau — it only seems there again, as a means to get out, or on from, of locality into another distance/dimension — how/where do you think you made that shift yourself? (a translation of dimension/address, it feels to me, after the work in N. Atlantic Turbine or am I purely imagining that?) — much of the time efforts I have made that way seem to me only to have shifted the locale — to another part of the country, say — rather than on off altogether —
I’ve got this house, see, that for the moment is in Lawrence, but may be (has been) other places (like early Ft Scott, or Galena, except for a literal glacial edge, at this instant) — & a set of “characters”/operators — Dr Dee definitely, & Delius, & some Haitian sinister notables newly arrived (or abt to arrive) — or John Brown, plus — merely a presence so far, not a person — someone very much like the Whore of Babylon grown old — it’s really her piece/place — all this not a play, not a set of voices — I’m interested in simultaneous rooms — it so far only feels like an assemblage of tokens — if we take the dimension of the local as X, then that aspect of it as simultaneous ages of history/places in geography may not be another dimension altogether, but we might designate X' — X prime — then — it’s the dimension that is beyond that, that all that fiction, of story, seeks, yearns for, yet but there —
I don’t know that stating the situation in these terms is even helpful — one reason I dig around in Dee & Kelly’s skrying session is the intimation of another language there (not just some romantic biography that lures), that is present and all around me if I wd/cd hear it — i.e. all this talk of dimension — the dimensions are of here, this present, this actual — so as the heart leaps, as it warms in me as it attends those places I approach, or merely name, it knows the leap, the warmth, is for, or of, another, coinherent, realm …
“The glory is the thing happening; it is not, though in our talk we seem to make it so and can only believe in it so, an accident of the thing happening. The glory of God is in ‘facts.’”
as Charles Williams wrote, I read to my class last week — as Kelly wrote me recently: “Some times I wake up & realize I’ve been living in the profane for weeks …” — ah yes —
«I have oftentymes … and many ways, looked into the State of Earthly
Kingdoms, Generally, the whole World over: … being a Study, of no great Difficulty: But, rather, a purpose, somewhat answerable, to a perfect Cosmographer: to fynde hym selfe, Cosmopolites»
& in another place:
«But … more ample is our Science, than to measure Plaines: and nothyng lesse therin is tought (of purpose) then how to measure Land. An other name, therefore, must nedes be had, for our Mathematicall Science of Magnitudes: which regardeth neither clod, nor turf: neither hill, nor dale: neither earth nor heaven: but is absolute Megethologia: not creping on ground, and dasseling the eye, with pole perche, rod or lyne: but liftying the hart above the heavens, by invisible lines, and immortall beames: meteth with the reflexion, of the light incomprehensible …»
(from his preface to Euclid)
• • •
S. Indian Karnatic vina musio on air radio — writing office looking out over the campus SW off the hill — wind fierce, sky cotton-boll clouded — Sunday noon quietudes —
hope all is well with you all — let me hear from you as you can — & hope to see you out there sometime abt ¾ of the way through June, or subsequent —
(enclose some prose from the local student newspaper)
I reckon you’ve seen Penrose’s article in current Sci.Amer, on Black Holes? (lot of other goodies in this issue) //
2. Duncan McNaughton (b. 1942), American poet, cofounder of the New College in San Francisco (where he invited Irby to give three lectures on Whitman in the spring of 1986), and close friend and correspondent of Irby’s.
3. Dorn, The North Atlantic Turbine (London: Fulcrum, 1967). In the jacket note for this book, Dorn writes: “In ‘The North Atlantic Turbine,’ the poems since ‘Geography,’ I have tried to locate another hemisphere. And I want this collection to be the last necessity to work out such locations. I think I can now see my way clear to a spiritual address. I don’t feel that possibility as a ‘mellowing’ but more a transfer from an energy factor of my practice to an altogether direct plane of intensity I hope to find my place on. That non-spatial dimension, intensity, is one of the few singular things which interests me now. […] I have begun to do two things already: 1) Follow the vision of ‘Thesis’ (The poem which leads this collection) and 2) explore the mythification of the Gunslinger.” See Dorn, Collected Poems (London: Carcanet, 2012), 924–925.
27 Sep 73
Slow getting around to writing, getting settled at last, classes starting etc. Got a good apt finally, after 2 wks of searching, having things slip through my fingers, etc — its a hard place to find housing in, much less being able to afford it — but this place, in Christianshavn, the “bohemian” or “hippie” part of town, an area of cold buildings and canals & the remains of the 17th cent. fortifications and moat, certainly works out very well, with dishes, coffee grinder, utensils etc already in it — at 1000 Kr per month, with the dollar abt 5.7 Kr these days / The classes don’t amt to much in the way of attendance: 2 in one class 1 (today at any rate) in the other — one Dane, one American, one Canadian! So the year’s my own really to use as I want // […] ANYHOW the days go by glorious & sunny, only a little of the usual Danish rains so far. I want to get the book ms. together for Moritz but also wonder with his marriage split-up what chance there is of him getting anything out for some time to come. Have you got any ideas of other places/people/outfits might be interested — some collection of my stuff 68–72 or thereabouts —? // The trip over on the France was luxuriously a bore, the food good (but not great — the fish, for one thing, was frozen cardboard, no amt of sauce cd disguise —), copious, as was the table wine — drinks in the bar as expensive as NY, except Amer Picon, which I drank up all of their supply of — except for eating, I mostly slept & read Oliver Onions ghost stories, talked with the Hellmans & smoked up the rest of my grass, fearing the customs which in fact did not materialize at all, nothing, neither in Germany nor Denmark. So far the only dope Ive gotten here has been so weak as to be pure fragrance of imagination of better times past fondly remembered, but hope springs eternal // How’s wid y’all? Bialy’s last letter suggested you were living in Riverside, verdad? At any rate Im writing you there as best. / Did you ever get the piece off to Alpert? If not Id be mildly curious to see it myself, if you cd zip along a xerox // Have almost 2 wks off the middle of Oct thinking of going with Ruth somewhere warm and “exotic” like Crete, if all the tours aren’t booked up as they tend to be months in advance — have thought also of London but realize I don’t know anyone there except Michael Hamburger and him only slightly — then there’s Jonathan Williams up in Yorkshire […]. The way travel agencies are here, and the way expenses are living here, its really cheaper to travel than stay at home, as long as you take one of these Danes-en masse-lie in the sun and drink-nothing else kinds of sashays. // Otherwise I haven’t been travelling much so far, only got paid yesterday, for one thing — have slipped over to Sweden on the ferries 3 times, twice to watch birds with a birdfreak friend, once with Ruth to see Carl F. Hill’s extraordinary drawings in the Malmö museum (1849–1911, painted in France, went crazy c. 1878, mad the rest of his life, put away in Lund, his birthplace — the drawings from his years of madness are among the most impressive things I’ve seen in years, crazily prefiguring all sorts of later developments, but a world of their own, regardless of such comparisons). // Anyhow, things go on comfortably, & certainly Copenhagen is a very lovely city to be in, the pace of existence much less frantic here than US (it is also as you might guess a pretty expensive place to live, too), & the people, if a bit bland, very agreeable. And the pay is good.
/ Hope all goes well w/ you — let me hear from you
2. John Moritz (1946–2007), poet, student of Dorn’s at the University of Kansas, founder of Lawrence, Kansas–based Tansy Press and magazine, which published six of Irby’s books. See endnote 3 (“February 12, 1971”).
12 Feb 74
A query: Moritz and I are abt to get started on the reprinting of the Max Douglas poem, figuring to change the format to 5½ x 8, like say a New Dir. pb, and to add “Jesus” and “Delius” (keeping the same overall title though), along lines had been considering for some time (both Harvey Brown and Gerrit had suggested including those other two poems of the same time, two years back) — anyhow, the question is this: can you see using that piece you mentioned you’d done for Vort, but never got to Alpert in time, as a preface, postface, whatever, for this new edition of To Max D.? Since I ain’t seen what you wrote of course I don’t know how it looks etc, but how wd it seem to you?
I don’t know Johns schedule on all this, but he seems anxious to get it under way soon — from my end of it, there isn’t much to do, very few revisions in any of the poems.
… I feel like I’ve been typing with no let up ever since I got back from England the middle, last, whenever, of January, doing the ms. for Callahan, which took an incredible amt of wk for such a short bk — he’s got (I hope, if the mails didn’t go down again) it by now, take a look at it if you wd — any comments wd be appreciated — then on top of that some poobah shit for a talk the Fulbright office rookydooed for me in Brussels, god they’ve wanted one thing after another, summary, bibliography, copies of poems, on & on, all for some pittance in Belg. fr. (which as I fast found out, ain’t the same a-tall as French fr.) — AND starting now on the ms. for the other book Moritz wants to do, the one I wrote you abt in the fall I think, of poem 1968–1973, which is going to be a real bitch to get together — anyhow, um hum and ah ha and on …
I left here just after Xmas for Paris, where I stayed first with Clarence Brown, the Russian translator, a friend through my brother from Princeton, who was getting ready to head back to the US, his wife & kids already gone back, had the whole apt (Ionesco’s!) thus empty, spent a week there (rue de Rivoli, just where it starts, in the Marais, not down by the Louvre), mostly walking around digging the place, the incredible produce in the mkts in the streets, whew! esp after the Barren North, drove around in his truck some, etc, then spent abt a week with the Eshlemans in their place (Cavalcanti’s apt!) in Montmartre, during which time ate magnificently (except for one record and some postcards, that’s all I spent any money on in Paris: food and drink) though never more than one star Michelin, but lawsy what goodies, esp. the game, venison and wild boar. A memorable visit, all around. Then to England, crossing the Channel on one of those damned hovercraft, people barfing all around me and me feeling like my kidneys were going to bounce out my mouth, worst storms, I later heard, in 30 yrs, etc — went up to Yorkshire to visit Jonathan Williams in his “cottage,” 2 floors 2 baths and a sauna, which was very comfortable, the dales lushly green, the weather mild, incredibly soft and mild — back to London, stayed with Pierre Joris, the Luxembourg poet editor, via Bard, (Sixpack), where found Tom Pickard also staying so got to meet and talk with him, spent one day wandering around some together, and stayed over to hear him read at that Poetry Society outfit in Earls Court, a curious scene, but his reading great — in fact found Tom altogether, of course, a lovely memorable person I instantly liked and got on with — also saw the huge Munch exhibit at the Hayward, worth, as they say, the whole trip just to see, esp the late work, Id never seen even reprod. of before & bought records, books, a silk sq on sale in Liberty for Ruth, a fancy facsimile of the 1870 ed of Lady Cadogan’s Illustrated Games of Patience, for Tad, etc — had a great time all around, though London was dark dark and the sense of impending civil scrimmage building … & if the Irish start hitting the subways instead of scattered buses, ah me indeed …
& back here to the typing mill. How’s with you all? Bob sd you were looking for a place in SF, without luck (at that point, but since he sent the letter by regular mail it took almost 6 wks to get here — so what’s happening now? & such — I reckon you’ve got the big baby anthology Quasha and Rothenberg’ve done, which I must say I’ve dug digging around in, a lot, and as I said to Bob, any such compilation that puts me in between Emerson and Rexroth cant be all wrong.
So — basta for now — do let me hear soon /
2. See endnote 7 (“February 12, 1971”).
3. Gerrit Lansing (b. 1928), poet, essayist, founder of Set, “funky scholiast,” and close friend and correspondent of Irby’s (see: “[Some Notes on House and Woods] for Gerrit,” in The Intent On, 657–659).
4. “Kenneth Irby/David Bromige,” special issue, Vort 3 (Summer 1973); see endnote 5 (“September 27, 1973”).
5. Bob Callahan (1942–2008), writer, teacher, publisher, editor of New American Journal, cofounder (with Eileen Callahan) of Mudra Press, and founder of the Turtle Island Foundation, which published, among numerous other titles: Carl Sauer’s Northern Mists (1973); Dorn’s Recollections of Gran Apacheria (1974); and Brakhage’s Film Biographies (1977), for which Creeley, Dorn, and Guy Davenport supplied section introductions. It’s likely Irby is referring to his work on Sauer’s Seventeenth-Century North America book, which Turtle Island published posthumously. For further information, see the introduction to Irby’s prose pieces about meeting Carl Sauer and James Malin, elsewhere in this issue.
8. Clarence Brown, translator, arrived at Princeton as an instructor the same year as Irby’s brother, James, in 1959, and both promoted to assistant professor in 1962. Irby (Kenneth) and Brown shared an interest in Mandelstam: in 1965, Brown had translated and published, The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (Princeton University Press), and in 1973, his critical study, Mandelstam (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973). In 1974, his cotranslation of the Selected Poems of Mandelstam (Macmillan), with W. S. Merwin, was imminent.
12. See endnote 8 (“September 27, 1973”).
13. Pierre Joris (b. 1946), born in France and raised in Luxembourg, poet, translator, essayist, cofounder and coeditor (with William Prescott) of Sixpack, which was active from 1972 through 1977, and a close friend of Irby.
15. [Irby’s handwritten note]: for the most part the inter-city trains weren’t heavily affected at that pt, though slow [After a thirty year hiatus, the IRA began an aggressive bombing campaign in London in March 1973. According to the BBC, “[o]ne of the most horrific bombings came in February 1974 when an IRA unit planted a bomb on a coach carrying servicemen and their families, killing eleven people” (“The IRA Campaigns in England,” BBC News World Edition, Sunday, 4 March 2001).]
16. Irby’s poem “Relation” appeared in between R. W. Emerson’s “Hamatreya” and Kenneth Rexroth’s “A Lesson in Geography” in the anthology America a Prophecy: A New Reading of American Poetry from Pre-Columbian Times to the Present, ed. George Quasha and Jerome Rothenberg (New York: Random House, 1973), 61–63.
17. Holbrook Teter (1930–1999), activist, printer, social worker, renaissance man, and cofounder, with artist Michael Myers, of Zephyrus Image, which produced hundreds of books, pamphlets, posters, and other printed items. Myers illustrated Dorn’s 1974 quasi-comic book edition of Recollections of Gran Apacheria, published by Bob Callahan’s Turtle Island Foundation. Teter designed the complete edition of Dorn’s Slinger (San Francisco: Wingbow Press, 1975), which remains unchanged in each reprint [Gunslinger (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1989), and Collected Poems (London: Carcanet, 2012)].
The erasure practices of Jen Bervin and Mary Ruefle
At the 2013 Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Boston, I wandered among rows of bright, strange, and intriguing books piled high on independent poetry press tables. Hand-stamped, letter-pressed, spray-painted, ripped, sewn, and covered in tinfoil; poems shaped like boxes, poems printed on records, poems made into pop-ups or puzzles, or rolled as cigarettes — I even spotted a tiny book hidden inside a plastic egg. The small presses occupying real estate at the AWP book fair represent a fraction of the artistic output that marks what can be seen as a resurgence of the handmade book and the book as art object in contemporary poetry practice. The exciting variety of these book-object wares suggests a vital world of poetry, visual art, bookmaking, and communal production. In these composed book-works, techniques of production, including design, collaboration, and distribution, are part of the poem. The paper, binding, page sequence, gutter, and cover all contribute to our understanding and experience of the poetic text. Acknowledging this necessitates a reading practice newly attentive to the material nature of bookmaking in order to understand works whose compositional practices consciously incorporate physical book structures into the made poem.
Precedents for the practice of bookmaking as poetic composition include the innovative practices and ideas of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century writer-bookmakers actively creating a poetics of the book and directly engaged with the codex form and print technologies, including William Blake, William Morris, and Stéphane Mallarmé. Poetry as an art form already strives to “thicken the medium” as much as possible by using all of its visual and verbal features to create meaning and evoke sensation. This medium sensitivity inherent in poetry makes it uniquely suited to self-reflexively engage the symbolic and social functions of the codex form, and poetry’s intersection with such book arts practices as collaborative construction, manual printing, assemblage, and defacement allows for the creation of poetry book-works that, taking full advantage of poetry’s linguistic play, construct a reading experience of immediacy and physicality, of interruption, irruption, and potential. The physical and conceptual potential of the codex allows poets to deploy the paradox of the book’s cultural associations of fixity, stability, and spirituality and those of its physical intimacy, ephemerality, and corporeality in order to provide an encounter with the poem that is both tactile and conceptual, disorienting and familiar, mundane, exotic, ecstatic, and erotic. The poetry book as art object thus revises what it means to encounter a poem, insisting that to read is to move through the space of the book, to touch, to listen, to navigate, in short, to encounter a “full-bodied literature.”
By writing about two such poetry book-works, Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadowand Jen Bervin’s The Desert, I ultimately want to offer a record of encounter, a thinking through and with the book objects at hand. Each of these works takes an earlier book as its physical and conceptual impetus, sewing or painting over existing text and so making a new work from a previously obscure or forgotten text. Marcel Broodthaers’s purely graphical recreation of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés (1969) and the altered book-works of Ronald Johnson and Tom Phillips from the 1970s and 1980s are perhaps the most emblematic examples of this practice and perhaps the most famous. Each employs Duchampian and neo-Dadaist notions of the defaced book in order to enact the ways in which works of art and literature are always already a reshaping of the tradition. Others have written about the relationship between original text and altered image in Phillips’s work A Humument, but its status as an inspirational prototype has yet to be fully assessed in light of later defaced book-works. The same is true for Ronald Johnson’s Radi os, a book-length rewriting by excision of Milton’s Paradise Lost. While Phillips’s and Johnson’s excisions can be read as unrepeatable conceptual acts (what was conceptual had to do with their newness as well), there is no doubt that erasure has taken on the weight of a new genre within poetry practice.
A spread from Broodthaers’s Un Coup de Dés (1969).
In recent articles, Travis McDonald and Marjorie Perloff each locate the origins of what’s commonly called “erasure poetry” in conceptual models of appropriative or restraint-based poetry such as Oulipo or Flarf. While this is certainly a valid entrance point into a still little-discussed topic, I suggest we also view erasure poetics in the context of the material substrate of the book as object, a view which allows for a richer understanding of both compositional process and conceptual or creative effect. By subverting our expectations for reading within a codex, these defaced (or even re-faced/re-surfaced) books promote new forms of tactile reading in the service of phenomenological investigation and often offer an experience of time with greater fidelity to the process of duration as it occurs in everyday life.
Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow appeared in 2006 from Wave Books as a digital reproduction of Ruefle’s initial erasure. With its high-resolution reprint, Wave Books attempts to render visible the three-dimensional textures of the original text, maintaining an awareness of the poet’s hand in the poetic undertaking. In 2008, Granary Books published Bervin’s book, The Desert, with the help of a team of seamstresses, as the colophon states, in a digitally printed, machine-sewn, and hand-bound edition of forty, combining new technologies with traditional book arts practices, and, like Ruefle’s text, retaining an awareness of the poet’s composition method in the resulting artifact. Deploying the defaced book as phenomenological investigation, Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow and Bervin’s The Desert begin, like A Humument, with nearly forgotten books. Each work utilizes texts that are over one hundred years old and have escaped the notice of most contemporary readers. As such, each project can be read as an act of reclamation as well as renovation.
Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).
The Desert takes as its primary text John Van Dyke’s 1901 book of the same name, a detailed account of his journeys through the deserts of America. Rather than working directly on the original edition, Bervin digitally reprints the first seven chapters of Van Dyke’s book on handmade abaca paper. The text of each of these new books is then sewn over row-by-row with more than five thousand yards of light blue silk. The cover is wrapped in the same rough abaca paper and bleached to the color of sand, the title is hand-punched with small holes that form the letters. No ink or thread appear and the author’s name is also absent; instead, the negative space of the holes represents the book’s name, as if it had drained like sand into the pages that follow. The cover of the book alludes to the visual landscape of the desert and to the simultaneous presence and absence of Van Dyke’s original record. It also demonstrates the hand’s role as one of removal — the rough paper has been leached of color, the title is punched out rather than inscribed, the look, entire, suggesting absence. And yet, upon opening the book, we experience the beauty and abundance of a field of blue silk zigzags.
Bervin writes in the colophon: “John Van Dyke writes of the American deserts as necessary breathing spaces; my sewn poem is narrated by the air.” Describing her erasure as a single poem “narrated by air,” she refers to the project’s attempt to create its own elemental landscape within Van Dyke’s depiction of American wilderness. On an early page, Van Dyke’s text has been sewn over line-by-line to reveal only two words, each an utterance that is equally speech and exhalation: “Ah! / Air!” Out of the reconstituted landscape of the page, speech erupts, forming its own breathing space, furthering Van Dyke’s conceptual project, and creating a space of release for the body of the text within the landscape of the page.
Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).
Not only does Bervin make tangible Van Dyke’s poetic attention to visual phenomena, she creates sensations within the act of reading through the haptic quality of the erasure. Bervin’s erasure enacts, in the book’s own archeological terms, both a burial and an excavation. Covering over the bulk of Van Dyke’s record of his wanderings in the desert, the three-dimensional, textured surface of the blue stitching lures the reader’s hands to participate in the text. In these raised blue fields, we also find pockets of text that have been left open or have been sewn over and subsequently uncovered once more, the pockmarks of the removed thread still visible. These pockets of text exist as fragments, such as the single legible word on page 26: “missing.” In most instances, however, the visible fragments can be read across the page to form longer (often self-reflexive) statements about observation and composition. Texturally they exist as spaces of absence or flatness within the book. Visually, however, they form the darkest marks on the page and draw the eye to read the poem as an excavation in the midst of the blue field of stitches. Van Dyke’s text exists as one man’s record of his senses, which Bervin’s attentive erasure excavates to further reveal a meditation on light, vision, composition, and ultimately, the body’s absence in the landscape of the wilderness.
Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008). Back side of page 16/17.
Within this meditation, the tensions between the revealed words, the absented/covered words, and the textures of the glacial silk continually push the reader to recognize the reconstitution of form as a legitimate investigative and poetic endeavor. Bervin’s page, which contains what was in Van Dyke’s original a spread of pages 28 and 29, demonstrates just such an awareness of its constructed nature.
Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).
In this excerpt, “showing —” physically demonstrates the excavation — the needle marks around the word do in fact show us where the thread has been sewn then ripped out to uncover the word. A small black tail also hangs from the end of the word, a half-hidden em dash partially sewn over which looks in its semi-visibility like a black thread running horizontal to the vertical zigzag of Bervin’s stitches, forming a visual echo in which the text itself looks as though it might have been sewn onto the page. In a chapter retaining its original title, “The Make of the Desert,” we find further demonstration of the intervention of the poet’s hand and eye in the construction of meaning.
Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).
Here Bervin leaves the entire em dash uncovered, the threading together of the text indicated in a visual pun and followed by a verbal pun upon the needles, the spear-points, the instruments of the hand that have punctured the text and transformed it from inscribed word to observable action. The text instructs us to take notice of the blue threads folding back into the page and the pages folding into the book as a whole. Ultimately, we are being asked to pay attention to the inquiries the text is able to perform or suggest by what the hand veils or leaves open to air.
Jen Bervin’s The Desert (Granary Books, 2008).
Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.
Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.
Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.
Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.
Although the brushstrokes in the correction fluid look three-dimensional, the book’s haptic quality is illusory in its digital reproduction. Even so, the book’s look encourages the fingers to at least try to feel the grooves on the page, and our eyes still remain sensitive to its textures. At points the text also encourages us to move our eyes over the shapes of the correction fluid. On page 22, the text reads: “Think me / lazy / always idle; but / my brain / grows weary / just thinking how to make / thought” and, between each line, the patterns of white seem to form the shapes of words as they have not done on the rest of the page. The correction fluid forms illegible script-like shapes that register as readable lines rather than elided text, and we feel compelled, as we read through the lines, to strain the eyes, pushing the white images to resolve into a readability which the images ultimately deny us. On the facing page, it is as if the text has decided to answer our efforts with an explanation of its methods: “very simply, / ‘It’s always noon with me. / pale, and deformed but very interesting, / ’”. Noon appears opposite the reader’s struggle to simultaneously read and see both text and image at once.
Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. Courtesy of Wave Books.
Each act of erasure transforms the archive while simultaneously preserving the artifact. In this action, we recognize a larger commentary on language as occlusion — as a drama of both blotting out and inscription. The books enact the truth that everything that comes into presence necessitates an absence. We must then look at erasure in the context of what the poets preserve, the words, phrases, poems selected and revealed, in order to understand the practice of erasure, of art and aesthetics, as a method of selection that provides, if not a goal of complete retention and recollection, then an affirmation and preservation of what might otherwise be lost. The act of preservation exists as participation — a transformation of the material and of our own experience of the material. Ultimately, the books want to be readable. They describe an aesthetics, even an ethics, of active selection — of world-fashioning — and are, therefore, affirmative even as they interrogate the processes and politics of the act of selection itself, of who and what we choose to foreground.
1. Jerome McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 14. McGann’s conception of the work of poetic language is especially useful: “[Poets] draw attention to that quality of self-embodiment that is so central to the nature of texts … The object of the poetical text is to thicken the medium as much as possible — literally to put the resources of the medium on full display to exhibit the process of self-reflection and self-generation which texts set in motion, which texts are.”
2. N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 26. Hayles argues that what is at stake in transforming literary theory into material practice through an attention to literary works that foreground and thematize their status as material artifacts is “nothing less than a full-bodied understanding of literature.”
9. Travis McDonald, “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics,” Jacket 38 (2009).
10. Marjorie Perloff, “Poetry on the Brink,” Boston Review, June 2012.
By now, whether or not fans of his solution, all literary scholars — and perhaps even all readers — have confronted Franco Moretti’s classic problem: there is simply too much to read. And so, his argument goes, if critics and educators continue to rely exclusively on traditional practices of “close reading,” they must acknowledge that a vast number of literary works will necessarily go unread and unstudied as a result. Certainly this abundance is nothing new, but Moretti’s wholesale rejection of his profession’s past “exclusion strategies” may be.
In the opening pages of Graphs, Maps, Trees, for example, Moretti acknowledges that criticism’s historical adherence to a tiny canon — along with all the ethnic, geographic, and gender biases it entails — is certainly one way to lessen the reading load, both for critics themselves and for the readerships their canons influence. However, Moretti ultimately frames canon formation as a means of camouflaging rather than encompassing literature’s worldwide “explosion”:
[T]he study of national bibliographies made me realize what a minimal fraction of the literary field we all work on: a canon of two hundred novels … sounds very large for nineteenth-century Britain … but is still less than one per cent of the novels that were actually published: twenty thousand, thirty, more, no one really knows.
So Moretti proposes a different methodology for literary study, one that prides itself on its refusal to exclude: “distant reading,” a distinctly large-scale and quantitative approach to literary analysis in which “the reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction” via conceptual models and pointplotting. He then goes on to demonstrate the usefulness of this approach by applying each of his titular models to the same field of study mentioned above: the history of the novel. In “Graphs” and “Trees,” he traces the market-driven evolution of the novel through its myriad of nineteenth-century genres and forms, and in “Maps” he interprets the fictional world(s) of Jane Austen through a historically informed understanding of her novels’ geographical settings and systems.
Whether Moretti’s approach deserves to supplant or merely reside alongside previous methods of literary analysis, it seems impossible to deny its promise for fiction — and particularly for the novel, whose emergence seems most inextricable from economics and whose stories are usually clearly situated in place and time. But what of poetry, which often lacks such definitive sociohistorical settings? Can Moretti’s abstract models be applied here as well as in fiction? If so, how helpful are they in constructing meaningful analyses of individual poems, literary eras, and the evolution of poetry as a whole?
Immediately, several reasons for doubt seem to arise. For quantitative diagrams don’t deal in the ineffable; they deal in “raw data”: a baseline of gathered facts whose pattern or relationship alone is to be theorized and interpreted. But what facts can poems offer about themselves? Aside from certain obvious exceptions (such as in some narrative or “talk” poems), categories of form and topic, plot and setting, all appear rather slippery and disputable, perhaps even optional. And Romanticist Stuart Curran is not the only scholar to have deemed poetry’s several blurred and overlapping subgenres “intractable.” In more contemporary criticism, Bartholomew Brinkman has also observed a sticky “consolidation of genre” that begins in poetry of the Romantic period and culminates in modernism.
Thus, I wish to propose several possible applications of Moretti’s “abstract models” to the analysis of poetry in particular, ultimately reaffirming his hypothesis that such models reveal otherwise unseen patterns in and across literary texts and contexts. In the first section, in search of a diagram that might depict the character of historical trends in poetry (as Moretti’s genre-oriented “graphs” do for the novel), I will discuss the issue of genre in poetry and what Virginia Jackson calls the “lyricization” of verse. Here, I will argue that although generic distinctions may determine the novel’s various markets and therefore drive its evolution, it appears not to serve this same pivotal role for poetry, whose generic distinctions have remained comparatively static now for over a century. Hence, in the second section, I will turn to what I hypothesize may currently drive poetry’s evolution in genre’s stead: competing schools or movements. By analyzing a tree portraying part of this evolution, I will then introduce a crucial difference between my own evolutionary hypothesis and Moretti’s: in mine, literary development appears to be driven by not only selection from but also reaction against past literature. And finally, with this larger principle in mind, in the third section I will propose a model for “mapping” poetic content based not on geographical place but on image. I will conclude that through the use of these and similar models, poetry’s complex process of market-driven evolution does indeed begin to emerge — just as Moretti would predict — but that this process reveals a market far removed from the mass consumer readership of the novel.
1. Graphs: Genre, lyricization, and lit markets
In the chapter of Graphs, Maps, Trees focused on “graphs” in particular, Moretti charts the evolution of the novel primarily via genre: “epistolary,” “gothic,” “historical,” “industrial,” etc. And soon enough, a pattern emerges: whole clusters of novelistic forms emerging at once only to vanish just a quarter century later. And Moretti’s famously sociohistorical approach seems perfectly suited to explain this pattern: generations. That is, each genre traverses a “life cycle” no longer than that of its readers. The novel’s evolution, then, is precisely the evolution of a market governed by the forces of supply and demand — with genre as its main commodity. Consumers demand certain genres over others, determining which succeed and which fail, and the publishing industry supplies the surviving genres only so long as demand for them remains.
This analysis of the evolution of novelistic forms is elucidating, and a parallel diagramming of poetry’s historical development is certainly desirable. But can it be done? What are poetry’s “genres” anyway? And why does contemporary criticism comment so little on them?
According to Virginia Jackson, the answer to this final question concerns a process of categorical conflation between poetry as a whole and the “lyric” mode in particular — a process which, in Dickinson’s Misery, Jackson argues was fueled and embodied by turn-of-the-century critics’ misguided attempts to augment the lyric so that it might accommodate Dickinson’s originally unclassifiable work.  What Jackson’s argument narrates, then, is the effective collapse of all poetic genres into the lyric — and evidence supporting this claim saturates the last century of criticism. Indeed, even in Curran’s Poetic Form and British Romanticism, a text dedicated to the recovery of the Romantic period’s “generic conceptions,” Curran identifies the “master categories” of “literary discourse” as “narrative,” “drama,” and “lyric.” But if all poetry is also lyric, what of Curran’s alternate genres: the hymn, the ode, the pastoral, the romance, the epic? If Jackson’s theory of “lyricization” is correct, it may explain why most of these terms now smack of antiquity.
Yet although the label of lyric itself has been broadened and indeed may now encompass practically the entirety of verse, Jackson makes clear that this “collapsing” of categories in criticism has not in fact led to the total extinction of such categories, but merely to their being nominally subordinated or “reduced” to the lyric. Along these same lines, Curran asserts that “[w]e have inherited the myth of a radical generic breakdown in … Romanticism that in fact never happened.” In other words, lyricization’s collapse of generic categories is by no means a fact of poetic history, but rather a construction of critical culture. This containment of lyricization to the realm of criticism implies two notable things for a Morettian modeling of poetry: first, it implies hope. For if poetic genres indeed still exist, they can likely provide the “raw data” necessary to plot and track poetry’s evolution on a fixed diagram or graph (as Moretti does with the novel). But second, and more importantly, it perhaps implies that such a graph would reveal none of Moretti’s dramatic historical patterns or trends, since the market-driven evolution of poetry appears so vastly less responsive than fiction’s. Despite being critically received and frequently marketed as lyric for over a century, alternative poetic genres somehow simply persist, surviving in the face of critical extinction. If generic change, then, were poetry’s main mode of graphable evolution, its recent history wouldn’t appear very lively.
So is genre in fact, as Moretti and Curran agree, “the driving principle of … all literary history”? Perhaps. But if so, genre in poetry is not what Curran thinks it is — although it certainly may have been once. Moretti’s models prove precisely that literary history mimics biological evolution not only in its promise of environmental adaptations but also in its production of new species, and even Curran attests that the “[r]ecovery of [ancient genres] is much more common than the actual discovery of a new genre, at least in respect to poetry.” But if new species of poetic genre are rare or nonexistent nowadays, then might it be something else than genre that drives the evolution of verse?
I suggest a clue may lie in Moretti’s “generational” genre taxonomy itself. Across the titles of the genres named, most end with words like “stories,” “tale,” or “novel” to designate their common “master category” of narrative. However, after about 1850, another ending word appears (twice) that hasn’t before: “school.” Interestingly, Jackson’s argument for lyricization may inadvertently reveal why this term gained importance for all literary evolution — but especially poetry’s — during this particular era:
Whereas other poetic genres … may remain embedded in specific historical occasions or narratives … the poetry that comes to be understood as lyric after the eighteenth century is thought to require as its context only the occasion of its reading … My argument here is that the lyric takes form through the development of reading practices in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that become the practice of literary criticism … This is to say the notion of the lyric enlarged in direct proportion to the diminution of the varieties of poetry … as the idea of the lyric was itself produced by a critical culture.
Here, Jackson highlights the dramatic historical change that occasions the phenomenon of lyricization: what we might call the “decontextualization” of poetry, in which social ritual and cultural myth gradually bequeath poetry to the academy, and originally performative or socially embedded genre categories begin being filtered through the “fictive persona” of the printed page. That is, Jackson’s theory of lyricization narrates precisely the story of a market shift for poetry, a change in audience (and hence in demand) which — in a surprisingly Morettian twist — would ultimately dictate a lasting departure in poetic evolution away from generic concerns.
After all, what better way for poetry to adapt to its new scholarly environment than to flower in theory instead of in form, and to sprout up not genres but “schools”?
2. Trees: Schools, theory, and evolution
With “critical culture” having apparently acquired enough power over poetry to diminish its very categories of reception, new categories — and with them new markets — had to be established within and in legible response to that culture. The result, rather predictably, is a poetry more conscious of itself and its own priorities than ever before, one ready to explain and justify itself through personal manifestos at every turn, and one which today demands that a published poet be able to produce an “artist statement” aligning his/her work with a particular set of aesthetic goals.
Yet despite this phrasing, such a poetry is anything but “one”: indeed, as Curran puts it, poetic kinds “create their parameters not by simple imitation but by a competition of values, a subversion of precursors,” and the proliferation of individualized artistic credos around the turn of the twentieth century seems to have only increased such grounds for dispute. Thus, of the several “splits” or “divergences” in modernism’s mass of movements — some of which have been roughly reconstructed in the following tree — a few may represent “simple influence,” others pure “subversion,” but most some combination of the two:
Despite this model’s obvious conceptual limitations — its inattention to precise chronology, short-lived “missing links,” cross-branch interaction, etc. — its oversimplified form may nonetheless reveal much about the nature of “post-lyricized” poetic lines of influence. Firstly, modernism’s “roots” in Symbolism and Realism already suggest a tense competitive deliberation in poetry between external responsibility and internal composition. In other words, poets were already beginning to offer explicit responses to precisely the perennial questions of theory: “What is literature?” and “What should it do?” Next, in the tree’s “aboveground” branchings, these theoretical camps become more and more specialized, focusing and refining their questions as they go. Though most movements address all such questions to some degree, the ranking of their priorities varies widely. In brief, the Harlem Renaissance takes up social responsibility (How can/should poetry change society?); Futurism the external image (What/how should poetry represent?); Dada craft (How does/should one compose poetry?); and the Black Mountain School rhythm and sound (What is a line and how does it mean?).
Of course, still further questions arise from still further divisions. But the point is that the evolution of poetry — at least since lyricization signaled its environmental shift from social occasion to scholarly page — has become precisely the evolution of applied poetic theory. Modern and contemporary poetry engages theoretical issues, then, not out of some existential necessity for greater self-understanding, but because its market — its specific arrangement of producers and consumers — is something of an incestuous one. Most consumers are either professional consumers (critics) or also producers (poets), and nearly all others read foremost in scholarly settings, which demand similar attention to theory. The upshot of this argument may strike as surprising: poetry’s “inward” turn to theory, given its audience, made it not less relevant, but more.
So far, all of this only confirms Morettian thinking: literature evolves by adapting to its environment, and its environment is its market, its audience, its readership. However, the market that literary theory attracts — that of academics and particularly scholars of the humanities — is much different than that of the mass public, especially in its curious positioning of the consumer in relation to opposed or competing products. For whereas a traditional free-market economy fancies itself “consumer-centered,” supposedly relying on the tastes of choosy customers to decide which products die and which survive, academia is in many ways just the reverse — production-centered, where the consumption of text is almost never merely consumption, but rather fuel for further text production. This focus of the consumer on intellectual takeaway rather than personal taste, use rather than enjoyment, allows authors greater leeway to achieve precisely what Curran cites as poetry’s main means of variation: subversion of expectation, rejection of former ideals, divergence from precursors.
According to Moretti’s models depicting novelistic “natural selection” at work, conversely, the selection is entirely the consumers’. In his example concerning detective fiction, for instance, Morretti explains that “the literary market” is marked by “ruthless competition — hinging on form. Readers discover that they like a certain device, and if a story doesn’t seem to include it, they simply don’t read it (and the story becomes extinct).” But how can poetry’s pathways through modernism possibly be explained via readerly tastes?
Often avant-garde poetics, exemplified in modernism by Dada and Surrealism, was seen as an affront to readers who associated art with order; yet Andre Breton’s “First Surrealist Manifesto” emerged nonetheless, influencing successors on its own “branch” as well as on every other, and significantly revised its precursor in Dada by exalting and politicizing the “automatic” unconscious over the found readymades of Duchamp. And in turn, though highly influenced by Surrealism, the founders of Oulipo rejected Breton’s unconscious inspiration in favor of mathematical constraints, each thwarting the force of authorial will but by decidedly different routes. A Morrettian may call these men “readers,” of course, but they are certainly not only consumers. Thus, in part due to its differing audience, modern and contemporary poetry seems to have evolved differently than the novel. While (according to Moretti) the novel evolves primarily by readers choosing, dismissing, or refining genres, poetry seems nowadays to evolve more like theory: by published authors waging ever-fracturing battles of ideas, engaging with the academy, and recruiting entire “schools” of disciples to help them. Though both evolutions can be dubbed “market-driven” in a sense, poetry’s market seems to allow for more authorial flexibility, experimentation, and innovation.
One reason for this may indeed be academia’s self-professed relish for new ideas and rich theoretical controversy (often at the expense of mere “pleasure” or entertainment), but another reason must lie in academia’s central site of evaluation — and elimination. Not in sales, but in publishing, printing, and reprinting.
3. Maps: Canon, scale, and circles
Moretti’s example of the detective story’s evolution, though instrumental to his argument, unfortunately yields one rather unsettling conclusion: the canon may actually reflect the true “fittest” to survive in literature. The way Moretti explains it, the one major canonical author of detective fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle, naturally outshone and outsold his competitors through a veritable audience consensus. And what’s more, he ascribes Doyle’s success not to a mere trend in taste, but to the objective “technical feat” of his work. This may all of course be true of Doyle and his competitors; Moretti makes a compelling argument, and I see no reason to distrust it. But its implications concerning the canon seem dangerous, especially when applied to the annals of poetry, where canonical status historically appears to depend more on critical approval and anthological reproduction than on market consumption.
Based on Moretti’s account, canon formation seems almost inadvertent, a happy accident of literary evolution in which the strong simply outlive the weak, and truly “great” authors surpass their competitors fair and square through a quasi-democratic process of election. Yet this is far from the story of canon formation that poetry’s history tells. The difference between the two, moreover, I believe can also be ascribed to poetry’s distinctively scholarly market.
According to Alastair Fowler’s Kinds of Literature, three main kinds of literary canon can be distinguished: “the potential, the accessible, and the selective.” These three categories are perhaps best summarized by Alan Golding in From Outlaw to Classic as “describ[ing] the narrowing-down process” by which any tiny canon is established. First, the “potential canon” refers to all extant literature, meaning all the literature that, “simply because it exists, any reader could potentially read.” The “accessible canon,” in turn, refers to “that part of the potential canon to which readers have fairly easy access,” whether in the form of “scholarly reprints, affordable paperbacks, or anthologies.” And finally, the “selective canon” refers to “those works in the accessible canon that trained readers have selected as especially worthy of attention.” Clearly only this third and final category designates what we normally mean by the term canon. Yet Moretti seems to consistently conflate the other two categories in his discussions of the novel’s evolution — and perhaps with good cause.
Never does Moretti claim to have access to “all extant” novels, to be sure, but he at least presumes most published novels have undergone the same critical audience-evaluation process as Doyle’s. And although this could certainly be the case for novelistic fiction, whose market once again is vast and consumer-centered (and hence overflowing with “affordable paperbacks”), Golding reminds us it isn’t always the case for poetry, whose smaller readership within or adjacent to the academy frequently relegates even recently published works to the obscure fate of dissertations and historical documents: “[S]election precedes as well as follows the formation of the accessible canon, affecting the form that ‘accessibility’ takes. Some texts are considered worth keeping in print in a readily available form, while others survive only in the dark corners of university libraries.” So how can readers democratically select a canon from a set of texts to which they have no access? Golding’s answer, put simply, is that they don’t. Instead, “trained readers” do, but not always fairly or well. In fact, Golding argues that for many poetry anthologists “[e]xhibiting the historical range of American poetry meant exhibiting it at less than its best,” and that at times “the moral status quo” of American culture “effectively controlled the … range of subject matter in canonical poetry.” This argument depicts a very intentional canon formation indeed — a process that can be characterized as insidious at worst, biased at best.
Oddly enough, however, Moretti’s own methods of abstract modeling may provide a most expedient corrective to such bias, and it is this promising application of his theory to which I will now turn to conclude. Below is my own first attempt at a Morettian “map” of a poem, Ezra Pound’s own highly canonical imagist exemplar, “In a Station of the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
How might one go about mapping a poem that lacks clear geographical movement or even identifiable setting? One answer to this question may be found in the type of diagram presented above: a map that depicts not place but image, not absolute locations but relative changes in its visual scale, size, and scope. Of course, such a model would show little of interest when applied to a poem without major scalar variation, but it’s notable that Moretti’s own maps would prove comparably futile if applied to novels set entirely in one place.
Furthermore, despite its limitations, when applied to Pound’s poem the model yields striking results. Just as in Moretti’s various models, immediately a pattern emerges. In particular, by tracing the poem’s specific sequence of variously scaled images, one finds that it follows an increasingly focused “pulsing” pattern in which even the title participates: from the (smaller) station to the (larger) metro, from the (still smaller) faces to the (larger) crowd, and finally from the (smallest) petals to the (larger) bough.
And although perhaps not to Pound’s preferred degree of distillation, many other modernist poems — both canonical and noncanonical — progress in a similar kind of pulsation. For example, Mina Loy, a modernist linked to both Futurism and Surrealism but only recently deemed canonical, follows this pattern sporadically throughout “The Dead” — but with a twist that may betray her dual theoretical loyalties:
Our eyelashes polish stars
Curled close in the youngest corpuscle
Of a descendant
We spit up our passions in our grand-dams
We are turned inside out
Your cities lie digesting in our stomachs
Street lights footle in our ocular darkness
Here, Loy contrasts again and again the large with the minute, evoking the same disorienting leaps in scale and scope as Pound. However, an important difference also suggests itself: as opposed to Pound’s, Loy’s lines explicitly undermine the very notion of scalar stability by positioning the large within the minute, instead of vice versa. But this difference can nonetheless be sensed through a change in scalar pattern: instead of consistently moving from small to large as Pound does, Loy eventually transitions (with “We are turned”) to move from large to small, formally indicating her reversal of scalar reality. That is, through a central “turn” in the poem where the small-to-large patterning of scale stops and reverses, Loy reveals the underlying theme of almost every line — a disorienting inversion of physical order where “stars” lie in “corpuscles,” “cities” in “stomachs.”
The pairing of this reversal with Pound’s pulsation, moreover, may speak to Loy’s association with both Surrealism and Futurism. For as Pound’s Futurist-inspired Imagism suggests, Futurism prioritizes image and speed, whereas Surrealism prioritizes absurdity and dreamscape. Thus, Pound’s poem may actually reveal a template of sorts for the composition of Futurist/Imagist poetry — one which through Morettian mapping can be detected in both canonical and noncanonical writings alike.
Ultimately, then, some semblance of Moretti’s “abstract models for literary analysis” can and should be applied to poetry, despite the “intractability” of its genres. Not because Moretti’s idea is gaining traction, although it is. Not because his models yield results, although they do. And not because the course of all literary evolution turns out to be determined by the buying public, because it doesn’t. Moretti’s models ought to be applied to poetry, on the contrary, because — as he so graciously reminds us — a comprehensive understanding of literary history is yet to be reached. And why is it yet to be reached? Not because “there’s too much to read,” although there is. Not because attempting such a project would require Moretti’s method, although it might. But because the Western ‘canon’ has been exposed as a deliberate distortion, rather than an authoritative encapsulation, of that history. With Moretti’s help, may we work to rectify and clarify this distortion for all literature — not just for the novel remembered only by a sales-ledger, but for the book of poems forgotten even by its campus call number, reprinted once or never at all.
1. Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (2000).