As Lorine Niedecker once wrote of Louis Zukofsky, I can write the same of John Taggart: “I [am] fortunate enough to call him friend and mentor.” I met John back in 1985 as a freshman at Shippensburg University. By some strange luck, I like to believe it was the hands of the gods, I was assigned John as my adviser. I was an undeclared major with “poetry” listed under Hobbies on my application. Perhaps this was the deciding factor that got me placed with him; whatever the case, that placement turned into a mentorship and a friendship that have lasted to the present day.
I have no desire to talk about John’s work in a critical way; the work stands on its own. My inclination is toward biography. Once, when speaking with John on the telephone I let him know that I was reading a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and then I made the comment “I don’t know why I like biography so much.” And John remarked “It’s because you’re nosy.” We both laughed. I would defend myself and say “curious.” I think curiosity is any writer’s hunger. So through the thoughts and advice in John’s letters came the revelation that the one I called Dr. Taggart was also human. Just such a reward is probably one of the reasons why correspondence is so desired.
And John’s is a true correspondence, i.e., handwritten. I have included parts from early letters and worked forward through the years. I didn’t start out looking for anything in particular, just for what I thought was most interesting, but now that the selections are next to one another I can see that there’s a definite “religious” theme about them. But what more could be expected; as John has written me on more than one occasion, “My ‘project’ is to rewrite the Bible.”
Sept. 10, 1989
Still, for a number of reasons you may come to agree with, I’m happy to be the age I am and can imagine little worse than being time-machined back into earlier moments. If nothing else, as the example of Lorine makes clear in her own life, the art can truly get better as you go along; you can get better, you can get to the point where you’re doing what you actually want to do. One of the curious things is that something of a return is often involved. (The Loop title is no accident.) If my own experience is anything to go on, there can be a movement forward. Of course we think we’re moving forward all along, but I have my doubts. In my case, there had to be not only a going back, e.g., to the church, but a consciousness of what was involved: this is me.
Jan 10, 1990
You ask about religion. Having been born into that profession (not to forget, the name Taggart means “priest’s son”), it has taken me a long time to acknowledge it as my world and context. This is not quite the same as having a “view” about it. You can find traces of that in my poems, but the main thing is the acknowledgement itself. It is what is missing in much otherwise admirable contemporary work. And I think that must eventually tell against it. You don’t have to be a believer, don’t have to like it, but you have to have some sense of it to be truly human. To put it most flatly, it has to be part (if not the whole) of your vocabulary. Per Dickinson & Melville, remember that you can belong to the loyal opposition.
Enclosed is a recent poem [“Into The Hill Country”]. It’s a version of the visitation (Mary & Elizabeth). It may be that my “project” is to rewrite the Bible. No lack of work to be done!
September 24, 1995
Growing up in a series of small Midwestern towns, some of which were quite attractive, it’s fair enough to say that the world of books was much more alive and real to me than my immediate surroundings. And this extended to the church. I had, of course, to go every Sunday. But I would always go with at least one book of my own choosing, which, whatever else, would never be the Bible. What biblical knowledge I have is either the product of much later reading or recollections from Sunday School or my Father’s sermons. Enforced attendance makes for resistance and so I was a rebel, if on the subdued side, from the beginning. Dostoevsky or A. J. Cronin (popular novelist of the 50’s) or Salinger would always be in my church suit pocket or craftily (I thought) secreted inside my hymnal. Enforced attendance also makes for the development of a “critical” intelligence. I listened closely to my Father, always on the lookout for flaws in his arguments, weaknesses in his presentations. It makes me keenly aware of the public (spoken) exertion of power. I couldn’t help noticing how he moved a congregation one way or another. And there were other things I couldn’t help but notice: the theatre component of the service — robes, costuming, music, liturgy, the ritual of communion in particular — which, at home & behind the scenes as it were — were always discussed in terms of theatre, judged/evaluated as performance. And here & there I also noted instances of quiet, utterly sincere faith & devotion, persons of that quality. Now the odd thing is that none of this shows up in my early writing, either prose fiction (with which I began) or poetry. I wanted to sound like Robbe-Grillet or Celine or Stevens. It was only when I had done the Pyramid book and felt myself to be at what might be called an impasse of experiment, when I began to question the idea of avant garde experimentation as a worthwhile goal in itself. That it all came back. That is, I felt compelled to acknowledge the existence/value of my own experience and try to do more with it than a version of confessional reporting. In terms of music, it meant turning away from Stockhausen, Cage, Xenakis & others to the wonderfully (terribly?) sexy and innocent rock music I’d grown up with in the 50’s & early 60’s, much of it, importantly, black music. And, true enough, church music, hymn tunes, was involved. This is why Ives often moves me to tears. I can’t help but recognize the hymns he draws from and, as with the piano and violin sonatas, draws away from. A key in this was Kierkegaard, whom I read as a high school student but without anything like real understanding until much later on. He is for me the essence of the Protestant intelligence, which is not to deny his wide learning and considerable wit. The difference is that, finally, I don’t make the movement of faith. So in the end I remain resistant, even though I know I’m dependent upon what’s being resisted. It’s also the case that I have an abiding respect for what’s being resisted, not simply as “material” but as a reality in my life. All the church windows of very ordinary churches, not cathedrals, are real to me. And as they constitute a return to reality, they are more than simply real as actual; they are the windows through & by which I see. Which may simply be another way of saying that, essentially, I’m a rather elderly child, a child of pain as I most often feel in confrontation with the crucifixion picture/window.
A 1973 letter from Taggart to Ronald Johnson (courtesy of Peter O‘Leary).
April 13, 1997
At the moment I’m collecting some notes for the Zukofsky conference Bob Creeley is sponsoring at the end of the month. Luckily, Melville was all too much with me when he called, and the arrangement is that I’ll read a poem (The Pyramid Is A Pure Crystal) instead of reading a paper. The notes are to function as an introduction to the poem, which was dedicated to L. Z. when it was first published by Elizabeth Press. It’s been years since I last looked at this poem: a peculiar experience to revisit one’s thinking of over 20 yrs ago. I don’t know that I like the poem all that much, but I was intrigued with the boxes which are printed around the tiny poems in each series. It occurs to me that this is what I am: the poet of the box, the poet of boxes! If I could present what truly interests me, it would be something on the order of: the Platonic solids & the box kites of Alexander Graham Bell! Have you ever seen the old National Geographic photo of Bell & dozens of men pulling at a rope to get one of his giant kites (the shape of an abstract wing) into the air? That’s my idea of a good time! Actually, seeing kites at Bell’s “studio” in Nova Scotia was a galvanizing experience for me. There’s something quite magical about those geometric shapes and the delicacy of the materials (silk & very thin strips of wood). Well, I found it magical. A room of one’s own is a good idea, but a workroom filled with giant kites in various stages of construction strikes me as infinitely preferable. For a kite is a crystal made visible, a crystal you can see (inside out) & fly in the air.
January 26, 1998
Came across an article on Ned Rorem in the Times last week. Not one of my favorite composers, but something he said struck me. Approximate quotation: artists aren’t wild, crazy people; they’re the truly sane ones who know what they must do all their lives. And if there’s some appreciation, however slight, that’s great. A decent credo, I think. The only problem is, speaking only for myself, we tend to need reminding what it is that must be done. As for appreciation, I must tell you about an unlooked for example. Shortly before Christmas a Lutheran minister from Kansas called. He’d been struck by the Marvin Gaye poem & wondered if he could send me something by way of, yes, appreciation. This turned out to be no less than 8 cassette tapes of all sorts of music! & as an omen of sorts, the last selection on the very last tape was the opening from Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” This is a “project” I’ve been thinking about for some time (a poem in response to that music). A tremendous gift, and I’ll take [it] as a charm for what I know will be a major undertaking.
Thank you for your kind comments on the pastorelle poems. Their opening out into the rural, as you say, was a gradual process: gradually becoming aware of things around our place, literally learning their names, the names of plants as well as of the persons making up our local history. About equally gradual and “unconscious,” picked up as one goes along. Then, again, not altogether unconscious, i.e., reading WCW on American culture, specifically the immediate as local, played a part, almost forcing me against my will to realize/acknowledge that this was, in fact, my culture and, as such, what was to be acted upon in terms of writing. It took some time to get comfortable with single page poems. I like the fact that they’re scattered throughout a larger book. That way the water-torture effect is avoided (or so I hope).
Not sure if beginners know what they need in their beginnings (an older recognition that one may have been lucky even if that very luck is resented). There seems to be a basic choice between writing as if each try is a new beginning or using what you already have and trying to extend/push it a bit further. So the examples of WCW & Stevens. Main thing: try to avoid writing the same poem over & over!
[From a little over a decade ago — first published at Flashpoint — a meditation on what now — it seems clear — is to be considered “mid-period” Taggart, before the remarkable shift and efflorescence of Pastorelles and There Are Birds: the poetics of Standing Wave, Crosses, and above all that various and monumental collection Loop, a book which in my mind looms over American poetry of the 1980s and 1990s like the black monolith of Kubrick’s 2001 — or, more often, beckons like an enclave of vast, multilayered, shimmering Rothkos.]
“The act of reading,” John Taggart writes in his book on Edward Hopper, Remaining in Light, “is akin to the ceaseless motion of an ant on a moebius strip.” For “reading,” read listening, and looking, as well — the “gift,” if you will, of sound and vision. A Möbius strip, of course, is a loop of paper — you can make one yourself — with a twist in it; it’s that twist that makes the loop’s face endless: a three-dimensional object with only one surface. Where does that highway go to? Loop is the title of Taggart’s largest collection of poems; it was published in 1991, after, as Robert Fripp says somewhere about one of his records, “delays by dinosaurs.” Eleven years before, the pop band Talking Heads released their fourth album, Remain in Light. It was a controversial record, the product in part of bandleader David Byrne’s and producer Brian Eno’s intense, schoolboy-crush-like collaboration. (The first product of their woodshedding was the Eno/Byrne My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an odd and hyperintellectual reimagining of the Parliament-Funkadelic sound, crossed with various African beats and more than a touch of mid-seventies Miles.) Remain in Light expanded the band — formerly a trim four-piece — with extra percussionists, backing vocalists, and guitars; it moved them from the taut, witty New York new wave into a more expansive, funky, polyrhythmic territory. Eno, Byrne, and the rest of the band collaborated on the compositions, and Eno’s fingerprints were all over the vocal arrangements, more often than not odd workouts on the call-and-response pattern, Eno’s baritone choruses responding to Byrne’s edgy, faux-evangelist sprechstimme. And the songs — at least the longer ones — were built on loops, taped rhythm section passages over which guest musicians like Adrian Belew could wail to their hearts’ delight.
The loop, whether actual or conceptual, was central to the early development of what came to be known as “minimalist” music. Steve Reich’s early pieces “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965) and “Come Out” (1966) were built out of tape loops; his “Violin Phase” pitted a taped violin part against a real-time violinist. Around the same time, Terry Riley was developing keyboard performance techniques that relied on loops and tape delays, most expansively showcased in his Rainbow in Curved Air album. The English composer Gavin Bryars’s “Sinking of the Titanic” was a fully scored imitation of a vast, slowed-down tape loop; his “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” (1971) was built — famously or infamously — around a tape loop of an old tramp’s singing. Both of these Bryars works — not incidentally — were recorded and released in 1975 on Brian Eno’s Obscure records label, which also released the first recordings of another English minimalist, Michael Nyman — this, of course, long before Nyman became a soundtrack machine and minor celebrity.
Five years later Eno produced Talking Heads’s Remain in Light, and it was almost certainly at Eno’s suggestion that Memphis trumpeter Jon Hassell was brought in to lend a breathy, multitracked horn part to the song “Houses in Motion.” That part is vintage Hassell — pure R&B riffs through the verses and chorus, then, when it comes time for him to solo, Hassell’s leaping up into the microtones and raga scales taught him by his mentor, the great Kirana singer Prandit Pran Nath. Hassell, whose Aka-Dabari-Java/Magic Realism is one of the great unremembered records of the 1980s, has never quite settled down generically to any record company’s liking. Most recently, he’s contributed a hip-hop styled soundtrack to the TV series The Practice and has played on a pair of albums with guitarist Ry Cooder, one of them idiosyncratic reworkings of Duke Ellington standards, the other classic Indian ragas. And Hassell, of course, was present at the beginning of minimalism: he played on the 1968 large ensemble first recording of Terry Riley’s groundbreaking piece In C.
In C is a composition for any number of musicians, playing any instruments capable of meeting the pitch requirements of the score. The score consists of fifty-three melodic figures, through which each musician progresses, determining for him- or herself how many times to repeat each figure and how to align it with what’s being played by the other members of the ensemble. The music coheres, both through the individual musicians’ sensitivity — their listening to their fellows — and through an underlying “pulse.” Not the pulse of a metronome or drum machine, nor the pulse of a tape loop — but an organic pulse, carried and passed along by the members of the collective. “Large definitions commit one to a long line,” Taggart writes. “The line is prevented from falling in on itself by a recurrent, but never exactly repeating, cadence. This cadence undergoes a continuous motion (transformation).” And the poem — like the score of In C — cannot be an experience only of vision, but must be a performed thing: “As I came to discover, such a poem would have to be read aloud to make sense. The reader would have to break the silence of the cold page. There could be a liberation of participation, an ending of the silence and solitude.” More tersely: “‘Peace On Earth’ is meant to be more than one person’s private response to the war in Vietnam.”
“A recurrent, but never exactly repeating, cadence.” The mechanical loop repeats precisely, inexorably, with the sterility of Ford’s assembly line; the “exactly repeating cadence” is the Taylorization of the poet, the talented sophomore’s iambic pentameter. The mechanical loop’s contents, even when human-generated — Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz’s rhythms, the old tramp Gavin Bryars recorded one day in London — come back to us again and again, “same as it ever was.” The only thing that can be of interest about such loops is the human reaction to them. Bryars’s tramp’s singing is remarkably in tune, but, like a solo bluesman’s, his sense of time is elastic: his melodic fragment ends on a fermata, and the first bar of the thirteen (the song is in 3/4 time) is ever so slightly shortened. The tramp, long dead but interred upon a tape loop, sings the song in precisely the same (irregular) way every time (approximately 170 iterations on the most recent recording of the piece); the accompanying musicians, however, seem always — over and over again — slightly taken aback by his irregularities. It is in their momentary awkwardnesss that the piece’s pathos resides.
Gertrude Stein, in 1934: “every time one of the hundreds of times a newspaper man makes fun of my writing and of my repetition he always has the same theme, always having the same theme, that is, if you like, repetition, that is if you like repeating that is the same thing, but once started expressing this thing, expressing any thing there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis … insistence that in its emphasis can never be repeating, because insistence is always alive and if it is alive it is never saying anything in the same way because emphasis can never be the same not even when it is most the same.” By itself, the tape loop goes nowhere, is pure repetition. When the voice enters — the voice that “invades,” that “lays,” that “eats the face away,” that “turns the face of the listener, member among the members, into its excrement” — when the voice enters, the tape loop becomes the Möbius strip.
2. Reading: Vision and revisions
One loop from Remain in Light to the first flowering of minimalism, then back again. This isn’t playing degrees of separation, by the way — maybe instead something one might rudely miscall “songs of degrees.” No one wants to be Greil Marcus here, and dig out the underground connections between Johnny Rotten and the seventeenth-century antinomians — at least not in this piece of writing. There is, however, an aesthetic continuity that flows underneath the more interesting developments in late twentieth-century pop music, “serious” music, and jazz, a continuity that one wouldn’t want to reduce to the term “minimalism.” An interest in repetition, in stasis, in movement through suspended movement.
“It occurs to me,” says Taggart, “that all my work, before and since [“Slow Song for Mark Rothko”], involves translation or, more accurately, transformation to make the poem a ‘sound object.’” Transformation rather than translation: transformation is “the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody” (Zukofsky); translation is the poetics of August Kleinzahler’s meager creative writing professors, “paunchy with drink”: “If there is a mallard in the reeds / they will take it. / They will take it and make it their own, / something both more than a duck / and less.” But why need the poet look, at a mallard, or Edward Hopper’s “A Woman in the Sun,” or the panels of the Rothko chapel, in order to write? Why not simply effuse, let the cords of sensibility vibrate like an Aeolian harp to the winds of inspiration? “What is at stake,” writes Taggart, “is need. You find what you need, among the entire past and present universe, to get the job done. Your search in that universe of human objects and natural objects is guided by need.”
The basis of all of Taggart’s poetry is looking — or listening, or reading — a repetitive, accretive, circling motion guided by need. “The poet, who is first a reader, makes no original discovery in reading. Instead, the poet becomes only more aware of the spiderweb connectedness of his or her sources and of the innumerable ghostly speakers still beyond them.” “The world,” Guy Davenport once said to me, “was invented and arranged for James Joyce’s convenience.” Every detail within Joyce’s works, that is, connects to every other detail; and those works constitute a monstrous machine that spurs on its ant-reader to find the labyrinthine, rhizomatic connections that bind together, with a vast “spider web” or echo-chamber, the entire phenomenal world. Davenport argues that Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera is a precursor to Joyce’s as a “daedalian” work, searching out with passionate attention the multiple, even endless, intertwinings of human culture: Joyce, Pound, Zukofsky, David Jones, Basil Bunting, Susan Howe, have made such daedalian reading one of the principal and most vibrant modes of twentieth-century writing. Taggart stands, in his own idiosyncratic manner — and how else can any true artist stand? — with them. “Can love,” Zukofsky writes — and for “love,” read “passionate attention,” or “need” — “rouse a thing of the past / And not see it as present?”
“I wonder,” Wallace Stevens — old, perhaps depressed — wrote in 1947, “have I lived a skeleton’s life, / As a questioner about reality, // A countryman of all the bones in the world?” Seven years later he would answer himself, looking back upon his own poems: “That poem about the pineapple, the one / About the mind as never satisfied, // The one about the credible hero, the one / About summer, are not what skeletons think about.” Even as one reads, one turns back and rereads, one subjects one’s visions to the process of revision. That process of self-revision, like the revision of one’s precursors, is of course not immune to the dangers of mere translation. In 1993, Philip Glass released his “‘Low’ Symphony,” based on music from David Bowie’s 1977 Low album, which Glass claimed (somewhat unconvincingly) had been of influence on his own work. Glass’s is a rather unmoving piece, burying Bowie and Eno’s spare and suggestive synthesizer motifs in a wash of post-Brahms orchestration. Soon after, Gavin Bryars released “new,” expanded versions of his “Sinking of the Titanic” and “Jesus’ Blood,” spinning those works out, through fussy arrangements, sound effects, and guest vocalists, into distended parodies of themselves. Wordsworth’s last, unfortunate version of The Prelude comes to mind. Perhaps one should look away from the accredited composers of minimalism, to Bill Laswell’s Panthalassa remixes of early seventies Miles, or to the Sacrilege CD, multiple reworkings by an array of star producers from the British, American, and European “techno” scenes of tunes by the legendary German band Can.
A poem from When the Saints.
You may ask yourself, as Stevens does, “well — how did I get here?” Taggart has returned to his own earlier visions, and without fail he has transformed them, made them into new visions. “The Game With Red” returns to “The Rothko Chapel Poem,” boiling that latter work’s expansive, complex meditation into a stark claustrophobia: “I cannot get outside the dark red doorway.” The poet, “rectangles of light” falling through the windows onto his floor, works back through his entire oeuvre in “Rereading.” Has he lived a skeleton’s life, letting the days go by, water flowing underground? Of course not, for the poems reread in “Rereading” — among them “Peace on Earth,” “The Rothko Chapel Poem,” “Saul and David” — have come out of too scarifyingly immediate roots, and have themselves taken too deep root, for the poet to rest satisfied. There is a weariness here, a sense of the unending process of reading, of writing, of rewriting what has been written; the voice of “Vaguely Harmless,” as much as it implores, repeats, and emphasizes, cannot forget the “bones and whispy bits of hair / bones and bits of hair stuck in the memory” of “Black and White Close-Up.” All the poet can do is keep reading, keep rereading and revising — keep moving: “What I can do is move wandering movement / what I can do is move in a wandering movement”: “there can be no hope of rest.” To live — as poet and human being — is, again and again, with greater or lesser degrees of failure, to try to see. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” “Not seeing,” Taggart concludes Remaining in Light, “means not being alive. Being alive means seeing and thus trying to stay alive. We have the possibility of staying alive so long as we stay in motion, keep moving.”
Is it unfair to say that all of Taggart’s poems are “remixes” of earlier texts, whether those texts are poems, paintings, recordings, passages of philosophy, snatches of conversation? No more unfair, I suppose, than to see Ulysses as a remix of the Odyssey, the events of Joyce’s own life, and a broad swatch of the whole of Western literature and thought. Or to see Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon as a remix of Cézanne, or Alfred Schnittke’s First Symphony as a complex rethinking of Shostakovich’s programmatic works, of the relationship between jazz and classical music, and of the entire nineteenth century of European music. The loop of sound and vision is endless. That’s where David Bowie is wrong, or self-defeating, or solipsistic — “I will sit right down / Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.” The gift will not come to one who only sits and waits; hearing and seeing are functions of movement, of the constant, labyrinthine, repetitive, nervous movements of the ear, eye, and mind. And — need one add? — of voice, which is the gift of Taggart’s poetry.
1. Under the heading “Poetry And Philosophy,” in an anthology of T. S. Eliot’s critical writings, there are several statements suggesting that poetry and thought are antithetical. For instance: “the poet who ‘thinks’ is merely the poet who can express the emotional equivalent of thought.” And, writing of Dante and Shakespeare, Eliot claims that neither did any “real thinking,” but both made use of the thought of their times as “material enforced upon them” for the expression of their feelings.
2. George Oppen expressed high regard for Eliot, made use of Eliot’s poetry for his own purposes, and defined the poem as a process of thought. Which provokes the question: can you “do” poetry and philosophy at the same time, sing and think at the same time? Is it permissible to transgress upon the injunction of the Nike TV commercial “Do one thing. Do it well”?
3. George Oppen also expressed high regard for the painter Edward Hopper. Consider Hopper’s 1959 picture, “Excursion into Philosophy.” Hotel/motel room in a country setting, late morning or late afternoon. Two figures in this space and time. Semi-nude female sleeping on what looks like a hard, crypt-like purple bed. Fully clothed male sitting on the edge of the bed, his back to her back. She appears youthful, he less so. Also on the bed in a mediating position between the two of them is a book. The book is opened and bisected at a 45-degree angle by the shadow of her hip.
4. An excursion is a journey or “ramble” with intention of returning to one’s starting point. If that point is one of the points of your way or path of usual behavior, then an excursion is of relatively brief duration. Philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge, especially that which deals with ultimate reality or with the most general causes and principles of things and ideas and human perception and knowledge of them. “Into”: the journey is not simply “to” philosophy as arriving and stopping at a destination but an arrival and an involvement with. Into suggests depth and motivation. You did more than arrive; however briefly, you decided or were determined to go further, further and deeper.
5. A logical question: what’s he into? Into the doing of the doing of philosophy. What do you do when you do philosophy? You think. We know this because he’s in the same position as Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker.” He’s in the thinker position; he must be thinking. There’s a reproduction of Rodin’s sculpture on the cover of a book by Heidegger, who was also held in high regard and used by Oppen. The title of the book is What Is Called Thinking? This is its conclusion: “the essential nature of thinking is determined by what there is to be thought about: the presence of what is present, the Being of beings.”
6. A logical question: what made him do this doing called thinking? What led him into it? The book did. According to the painter’s wife, Jo Hopper, the book is Plato. Reading Plato makes you think. Honoring the nature of this occasion, let’s say he’s read the Symposium. Let’s say he’s read the passage in which Socrates tells Phaedrus and the others what he had been told by his love instructor, Diotima. It is a longish passage concerning the true order of doing, i.e., of attaining knowledge of “beauty absolute” by a step-wise progression “under the influence of true love” beginning from the beauties of the earth and ascending by way of single to plural beauties, fair practices and fair notions, to the ultimate destination of absolute beauty. Toward the end: “Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality).”
7. The Platonic idea or form of beauty is abstract, an abstraction. Its existence is dependent upon a group of earlier thinkers, the Pre-Socratics. This is what they did to make that abstraction possible. From Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato: “discard both the rhythm on the one hand and the syntax of the image-series [narrative] on the other.” And it is these thinkers who “in fact start as poets … yet their enterprise was undertaken in order to destroy concretion and visibility.” If that’s not enough and with reference to Heraclitus, also used by Oppen, and to that thinker’s employment of the aphorism as a means of breaking the “mindless flow of the bard’s metrical and musical spell. Particularly … it was to discard the accompaniment of a musical instrument.” Getting to philosophy, into the doing of philosophy requires a lot of discarding and destroying. In order to think, poetry itself would seem to have to be discarded and destroyed. For if rhythm and music as well as the concretion and visibility of the image are taken away, what’s left?
8. We have a problem if, after Plato, we want to write a poem and find ourselves trying to write a poem not only after Plato but also after Pound. If we’re American poets, I don’t think such a problem, which is a problem of consciousness or self-consciousness, can be avoided. And of course many others are party to and contribute to this consciousness. It is a self-consciousness as to what the poet, what the poem is — is or can or should be. Besides the definitions and admonitions of Pound himself, its most elegant expression can be found in the prose writings of Louis Zukofsky. Thus good poetry is “precise information on existence out of which it grows, and information of its own existence … the movement (and tone) of words. Rhythm … is the distinction of its technique. This integrates any human emotion … into an order of words that exist as another created thing in the world, to affect it and to be judged by it. Condensed speech is most of the method of poetry.” Or most elegantly: poetry is “an order of words that as movement and tone (rhythm and pitch) approaches the wordless art of music.”
9. We have a problem if we want to write a poem with that self-consciousness in our consciousness and conscience which moves in direct opposition to Plato in claiming the value of poetry and specifically with regard to precision (or the concrete) and rhythm (or cadence, the musical generally). That is, we have a problem if, as George Oppen, we inherit that self-conscious consciousness and would yet define the poem as a process of thought. We have a Plato-Pound problem, a double trouble problem.
10. Let us consider how Oppen deals with this problem, concentrating on song announced as such in certain of his poems. “Giovanni’s Rape Of The Sabine Women At Wildenstein’s” from This In Which. The poem, describing the statue, recreates the historic scene of sexual violence by which Romulus arranged marriages for his warriors and families for Rome.
Settles into village clarity
Among the villagers, a difficult
Full of treason
To one’s fellows?
To old men? In the villages,
The dwindling heritage
The heart will shrivel in
Clarity is equated with song even as here it must be a song full of treason, the villagers’ realization that they’ve been swindled. The repeated three questions, however, question song. From the close of the poem:
If this is treason
To the artist, make the most of it; one needs such faith,
Such faith in it,
In the whole thing, more than I,
Or they, have had in songs.
The poet’s faith, as we know from an earlier poem, “Psalm,” in this same collection, is in the finite/empirical “whole thing” world and in the small nouns which body forth the disclosure of that world. What he doesn’t have faith in is songs. He is an artist who would willingly commit treason against art, if only to maintain fidelity to the world.
11. “Route,” section 10, from Of Being Numerous.
Not the symbol but the scene this pavement leads
To roadside — the finite
Losing its purposes
All this is reportage.
If having come so far we shall have
Let it be small enough.
What was there to be thought
Comes by the road
Oppen’s route is not Plato’s stairway to heaven. It is precisely an image-series, of images as moments of clarity in terms of finite instances of the finite encountered along the way one’s life has taken. As a whole, the poem is a report of those encounters. (The line “All this is reportage” is a constant refrain throughout all its sections.) Song’s place in all the reportage is equivocal. If it is to be had, perhaps as a celebration that something and not nothing was encountered, it must be small, in scale with the finite. Something, say, a little less than Dryden’s “heavenly harmony.” The concern of the report, what it finds valuable, is thought not song.
That the Virgin should be part of Oppen’s route is peculiar. It recalls William Bronk’s “Virgin And Child With Music And Numbers” poem from The World, The Worldless, a volume which Oppen helped edit.
… Lady, if our despair
is to be unable to factor ourselves in song
or factor the world there, what should our joy
be other than this same integer that sings
and mocks at satisfaction?
Bronk’s poem ends with a pronouncement of non-fulfillment and of being held in the void of “whole despair,” where he says the world endures. The final line is: “Lady, sing to this Baby, even so.” Going by his blurb statement for Bronk’s book alone, there can be no doubt of Oppen’s high regard, praising the poems as “a part of the living stream of thought.” The appearance of the Virgin in Oppen’s poem is a reminder that some of the incidents encountered can be finite textual incidents. One word is a finite enough incident.
Bronk’s poem asserts that the singing (Mary’s to Elizabeth that her soul magnifies the Lord) was and is. It was because the Bible (Luke 1:46) says so and is because it becomes the magnificat of later singing in celebrations of faith. Bronk’s “we,” however, cannot define themselves or the world in this song or integer because they don’t have faith. Oppen has faith, though not of any orthodox religious variety. He will allow the Virgin to sing but she has to keep it small, a minificat, and she’s reminded that what matters is thought.
12. “Song, The Winds of Downhill” from Seascape: Needles’s Eye. Although the title puts song first, it again comes last. The beginning posits an art povera, a lack of the “common/wealth of parlance” (the tone and pose of inherited language, the elocution and eloquence enabled by tradition) as a positive starting point. In that condition, words such as “would,” “with,” “and” take on substantial meaning. These are not exactly the small nouns crying faith, but they’re small enough in themselves and in their number. A small tone row. They act as handholds and footholds. The suggestion is of an arduous progress. It is a progress having nothing to do with the residential lots. Rather it goes beyond the already laid out, the “small lawns” of the safe suburbs of what is already known. And it is no kind of ascent or ascension. Significantly, what the poem arrives at in its closing lines is not thought in opposition to song but “a poem / which may be sung / may well be sung.” The poem, even in declaring itself a poem, does not give us the poet “singing” but at least the possibility of singing. There’s been a shift, an accommodation, and an acknowledgement: that a poem can have meaning and be a song; that small words may take on substantial meaning, disclosing presence and being, and be a row of tones; that the valuables may be lyric valuables. This arduous progress beginning in a deprivation of inherited language/tradition can become a poem and be recognized as a poem because it’s singable, may be sung.
13. “The Little Pin: Fragment” from Myth of the Blaze. The poem has a noteworthy headnote: “The journey, fortunately [said the traveler] is truly immense.” (This is Oppen’s slight modification of the last line from Kafka’s “My Destination” in Parables and Paradoxes). The opening of the poem would have us recognize the physical world, finite and empirical with its vectors of rain and wind as a pin, a bare bodkin, acting to puncture human pride and presumption. If history is the record of those things, it punctures history and the assumption that meaning resides in history.
At the close we find “song” but with a question mark and repeated as “astonishing song?” This is the response to those questions:
… the world
world the wind
be wind o western
wind to speak
The lineation matters: “the world / sometime be.” The words matter, especially “sometime” as opposed to the more usual and perhaps expected “sometimes” (or Zukofsky’s “some time”). In sometime there can be disclosure of Being, the presence of all those presences and beings that constitute the world. And, as those presences/beings give witness to Presence and Being, the first word of the next line completes a sentence: “the world / sometime be / world.” It does not have to be only a dwindling or shriveling of the heart even as I would hear Oppen’s “sometime” as a lowercase, humbling modification of Heidegger’s metaphysical “Zeit.” This is amplified, musically enough, by “the wind / be wind.” And with another sort of musical amplification, a quotation from the fifteenth-century lyric “O Western Wind.” The lineation breaks up the lyric (o western) — doesn’t discard or destroy it — and connects it with speaking/stating/reporting (wind to speak / of this).
What does this “response” sound like? It sounds astonishing, like no other poetry before it. Or it sounds like Thelonious Monk playing Webern. As language — normative statement language or normative/traditional poetry — it must sound fragmented, fragmentary. We’re back to Heraclitus, with regard to whose fragmentary sayings Havelock remarks: “English and indeed any modern syntax cannot cope with the original compression.” We’re back to the beginnings of philosophy as we’re back to the beginnings of English poetry. It is a poem of statement made to sing or be singable. To adopt a phrase from Celan, it is the “singable remnant.” And it is not merely a remnant as leftover and tattered garment as it is not merely a heap of broken images but rather a new song.
14. Each poem is a journey, a process of thought that comes to song. Each is a journey within a larger, immense journey which, insofar as a mortal traveler is involved, necessarily has death as destination. Each and all amount to much more than an excursion. And each is a song in the very process of that process, however intent the poet may think himself to be on thought. This would seem to answer the question of whether one can sing and think at the same time. But the fullest answer is provided by Oppen himself in his ca. 1975 “Statement On Poetics” as reprinted by Stephen Cope in his edition of the poet’s Selected Prose. What follows is a “musical” restatement of Oppen’s statement. Musical because only some of it is used, because I have substituted “poetry” for Oppen’s “prosody” and “song” for his “music.” It’s something of a minor improvisation.
“And that’s poetry, it is a song but it is a rigorous song — a song that refuses all trumpets, all sweet harmonies, all lusts and emotions that aren’t there, it is a song, quite simply, of image and honest speech — image because image is the moment of conviction.”
“Poetry is a language, but it is a language that tests itself. Or it tests itself in song. … It tests the relations of things; it carries the sequence of disclosure.”
“And actualness is poetry, it is the purpose of poetry and its achievement, the instant of meaning, the achievement of meaning and of presence. …”
“Which means again that the poetry and the ‘philosophy’ cannot be separated …”
15. In sum, as a not minor improviser, Duke Ellington, said: “Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
This essay was first delivered as remarks for The Shape of Disclosure: George Oppen Centennial Symposium, Tribeca Performing Arts Center, April 8, 2008.
Ritual, Rothko, and poetic form
We in the West, Lou Reed once complained, are denied our ritual, a complaint which is itself a kind of ritual, within art culture and perhaps more broadly, that has been practiced with dramatic results throughout the recent history of poetry and art in the West. Admittedly, the ritual Reed mourned the lack of was a particular one, that of hari-kari, so spectacularly performed, in what was then recent memory, by the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, having just addressed members of his private army from a banner-draped balustrade. But Reed’s was only a late adumbration of a lament that is at the heart of many of the enduring monuments of modernism: we in the West are denied our ritual. This could be the founding myth of more than one twentieth-century art culture: there was a ritual world, it no longer is, or if it is, it is in bits, alive among the mad and the preliterate, and could be reimagined, and this is what art could do, what art culture could be: a fully operative symbolic system for an elite if not the full cast of social life. And at the heart of this ritual world, its words, practices, and shiny objects, was magical thinking. There is of course an immense range of analysis and speculation attending the word “ritual,” a word crucial to twentieth-century critical thought. Here, beginning my approach to the entrance of Taggart chapel, I can only attempt to work with the simplest sense I can find, the notion that highly organized repeated symbolic actions can effect events.
For poetry written in the emerging world of the modern, the analysis of ritual, of the beliefs that make ritual possible, of the form by which rituals make themselves felt, of what that feeling might be, and most especially of the transformation within the participants that ritual practice could provoke, could not help but be of deep interest, crucial concern, really, for practitioners of an art form with tradition running deep into the pre-Copernican world of cosmic correspondences, not to mention the renewed authority granted by anthropology, psychology, and occultism to word-magic. Moreover, with the restructuring of daily life accompanying the rise of urban secular life, with the shaping of selfhood that has been said to attend the birth of the modern, where else so much as in a sophisticated grasp of what a ritually informed artistic practice might mean, could one see, and dramatize, the full arc of incarnation, from birth to death and whatever might once have been or still be beyond? Behind romantic, symbolist, and modern poetry’s interest in the theory and practice of ritual, spurred by the discoveries of archeology, lay the tantalizing possibilities of the full force of ancient drama, recovered, including the choral poetry Nietzsche describes in The Birth of Tragedy: “The virgins who proceed solemnly to the temple of Apollo, laurel branches in their hands, singing a processional hymn, remain what they are and retain their civic names: the dithyrambic chorus is a chorus of transformed characters whose civic past and social status have been totally forgotten: they have become timeless servants of their god …”
1. The temple
While much might be said about the presumed power of poetic cadence in this quotation, about the radical schism between the everyday and the divine which incantation might be seen as able to momentarily overcome, even more might be said about the promise of inner transformation of those who chant dithyrambically as one, a promise fervently reiterated in the twentieth century across a range of arts. For now I simply want to note the fact that a temple is mentioned, a temple towards which the celebrants proceed. The columns, the open, geometric spaces, perhaps like what might still be seen in Turkey, at the temple of Apollo in Dydima, once the prophecy vortex of the ancient world, mark a socially sanctioned space for acts of ritual magic. The temple orders earth and sky to reflect meaning on a human scale. In a temple, pillars and squares are all heights and all horizons. At a key moment in modernity’s pondering of the repurposing of outmoded forms of ritual the link between ritual thought and shape became a matter of artistic abstraction. Matisse knew his Mallarme; Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Malevich developed an idiom of pure shape and color through which abstraction could show the presence and power of the unseen world. In the middle of the last century Abstract Expressionism brought this ambition into the art culture of New York. The paintings of Mark Rothko, a lifelong devotee of The Birth of Tragedy, illustrate the path from the mythic to the abstract, from Surrealism’s deep interest in the worlds of classical ruins and modern fetish dolls, to an art free of all vulgar mimesis, where might finally be brought to reside “the Spirit of Myth which is generic to all myths of all times.”
Rothko explicitly presented his work within the conventions of the evolving literary aesthetics of the thirties and forties as spiritual, as if his basic materials, canvas and paint, could be the exact meeting place of the finite with the infinite. Recalling his debt to Arshile Gorky, we can imagine this meeting as suffused with the glamour of immense suffering. “I have been painting Greek temples all this time and didn’t know it,” Rothko remarked on a tour of Pompei in Italy. And we might add, given the dark tone his painting would take in later years, he has been imagining Greek theater, and the dramas performed there, all that time, though he was too prone to dread and despair to say he didn’t know it. The opportunity came to Rothko, late in his career, to design a Catholic chapel. It was a challenge artistically and architecturally, but also spiritually. The murals for the Rothko chapel would become a massive theological undertaking, done exclusively in shape and color and architecture, aiming to do nothing less than shift the spiritual orientation of Houston, Texas, from Rome, to Basel, and to points beyond. Through his warring with the architect Philip Johnson, he reshaped the walls and roof and floor into a structure that could be a place for secular, or should we say post-secular, ritual. Rothko forced Johnson off the project, and the chapel, no longer on the grounds of a Catholic college, in its final version more closely resembled a structure in Israel that holds the Dead Sea scrolls. It would be filled with panels that Michel Butor likened to the Ka’ba. Though the result is hardly an interfaith center. The Rothko chapel was to be first and foremost an omphalos for midcentury existentially minded art cultures, set, almost perversely, in Houston, a city of oil and space technology, and opened, with the chapel’s completion, to a current of thanatos pouring down from an artist’s studio on the upper east side of Manhattan. Rothko’s true commission was to make palpable in line and color what a devotional space might look like for a belief system built upon fundamental colors, red and black, colors recalling for one critic “the blood and fire purification of old ritual.” The series of panels inside, distinctive within the span of all Rothko’s work for their sharp clean delineation of his squares and for their monochrome color scheme, were designed to transform the inner world of the art pilgrim who had fled the Babylon of 57th Street in a craving for tragic exaltation.
But the modern pilgrim will not find the Rothko chapel paintings arranged to reflect any meditative progress like stations in a traditional pilgrimage, though some have read them, in that there are fourteen panels, as reminiscent of the Catholic stations of the cross, as if Rothko were nodding towards his fellow abstractionist, rival, and Jew, Barnett Newman. John Taggart, a poet I take to be exceedingly mindful of the vast project of reinventing devotional practice in the bright world of nihilism that follows Nietzsche, finds in the Rothko chapel a perpetual but imperceptible crucifixion, one with no lash, crown, cape, ridicule, hammer, nail, or bereft mother, no overt sign of the death of God, except, we might suppose, in looking at the paintings, the red blood streaming from the wounds of Christ and the black, the sky at the moment of his expiration. No cross is seen in the Rothko chapel, though Taggart finds them in the gaps between canvasses. The icon persists within its own absence. Perhaps simply so we can feel without mediation how we are, in Merleau Ponti’s phrase, “grafted to the universal by that which is most our own.”
Taggart’s evocations of Rothko, both poetic and critical, are a liturgical drama for a world where Christianity is over (though perhaps Nathaniel Mackey’s phrase “liturgical ambush” might be more accurate). The texts in his “The Rothko Chapel Poem” are scripts for a total artwork built on the story of the dissolution of the needy, quotidian self in an exceedingly dark ecstasy. Both the poem and the chapel itself are a highly ordered art experience that connive with fanatical focus and bring about to all who enter what Dore Ashton would call, in her book on Rothko, the “psychological conditions for religiousness.” That is what the magical practice of art might bring about. This art experience offered to us in the Rothko chapel is not undifferentiated intensity (for visitors who might experience their own unworthiness as boredom) but comes to us in stages, or in Taggart’s term from the poem, movements. For Sheldon Nodelman, in a work that could stand as a visionary exegesis of the entirety of the chapel, every blueprint, every work order, every pour of concrete argues that the viewer is led through three stages of aesthetic perception where, to crudely summarize here, the play of verticals and horizontals between the black figure paintings on the four directional walls of the chapel and the monochromes on the angle walls, and the complex progress of perception of red and black (and the undisclosed blue, the traditional color of the eternal, added to the red for the shades of violet in the monochromes), of seeing both vertically and rotationally, constitute a fully coherent meditation on fundamental axes of existence, the eternal and the temporal. While I will not be entering the full text of Taggart’s “The Rothko Chapel Poem” today, I can’t help but think the play of scale, direction, and the intense mirroring of Taggart’s stanzas draw not simply on the chapel and its paintings, but also on an exactly worked-out ritual practice Rothko devised for his own vernacular religiousness. Certainly the final text of “The Rothko Chapel Poem,” with its vision of leaving the chapel and seeing earth and sky suffused with fiery blood, lends credence to the suggestion that Taggart, too, is rethinking the possibility of ritual experience, and that the process of reading the poem is meant to initiate us into a world of Dionysian anguish and ecstasy.
2. Slow song
In reading Taggart’s Rothko texts one could disavow all notions of fate and yet feel driven to ask, could such a poet as John Taggart ever not answer the call to sound out the hollows of the Rothko chapel? In Taggart’s account of the birth of his own style, he is careful to tell us that Rothko looms not as a formal exemplar, or as the iconographer of purest angst, but as a figure who appears almost haphazardly, naively beckoned as the result of the poet’s concern with the properties of stained glass. A telling remark that locates Taggart at the intersection of craft and devotional cultures, and of course the difficult relation of modern art cultures to the aestheticized Medievalism of the symbolists and the pre-Copernican cosmology embedded in European, Arabic, and Persian poetic traditions. The glass is “a mystery, it glows without fire or heat, it proves the power of light as embodied spirit.” Rothko, according to Taggart, manages to create the effect of a “hidden light source,” and here we sense Taggart’s own allegiance to the light mysticism embedded in the English Metaphysical tradition. A statement of Rothko’s will provides something of an essential dogma for the poet to shape into song: “it is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again.” With this line Taggart fashions perhaps the earliest and the fullest first achievement of his signature reiterative method. In “A Slow Song for Mark Rothko” Taggart strikes a decidedly ritual and devotional stance towards reality, and as we are momentarily here in the neighborhood of projective verse, it’s worth noting how Rothko’s statement embeds and revises, through contextualization, projectivist poetics. (Or am I alone in hearing the quick breaths of Olsonian recitation in the phrase “it is really a matter … of breathing and stretching one’s arms” in which Taggart has noticed crisis “ending this silence and solitude” and repetition: “again”?)
In “A Preface” collected in Songs of Degrees (where he discusses the writing of “A Slow Song for Mark Rothko”), Rothko steps into the evolving world of Taggart’s poetics as the avatar not just of embodied light, or even of music (Messiaen and Grosseteste are soon mentioned), but of ritual itself. Famously adverse in later years to theorizing his art, Rothko falls silent here, and Stephen Reich speaks. For both Taggart and Reich, working in the postmodern moment, transformation is nonetheless still the goal of art. For Reich, as it will for Taggart throughout all his reiterative works, that transformation begins with the slow shifting of attention. Note in Reich’s statement the emphasis on the power of a slow song to rearrange the mental universe: “Listening to a gradual musical process,” Reich says, “one can participate in a particularly liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible the shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards (or inwards) towards it.”
That “he or she” Reich imagines is most likely not a couple that has decided to get married in the Rothko chapel, though the method of Taggart’s poem might suggest exactly that. And the wedding waltz Taggart stages in the Rothko chapel could hardly be the music Reich imagines, which works like a form of tantric practice, to purify and elevate the attention of an isolated listener. A wedding waltz is to move a group of unfocused celebrants into a dance, but of course it is a part of the intense, dare one say Kierkegaardian, irony at work — that the true music to be heard in the Taggart chapel, which through the magic of ritual form comes to exist within the Rothko chapel, is that of blackest solitude and wandering, exile, death, and anguished rebirth. For Reich, whose notion of a slow song here could stand as a gloss for Taggart’s poetic ambition in his reiterative structures, the musical process occurs simultaneously within and without. The goal of the ritual is, for Reich, the contemplation of its own process, its own organized, symbolically rich path which offers the listener liberation. For Taggart, such a liberation, as it occurs within “The Rothko Chapel Poem” as nowhere else in his work, comes as a perpetual Calgary, a Passion, a hymn of divine suffering. But as readers only just climbing the steps of the textual temple, we might be forgiven for not noticing that the multiple reiterative epigrams for the poem are taken from Fear and Trembling, from an author, that is, dear to both Rothko and Taggart, and for having no real clue that the agonized coming to be is the ritual process the poem has in store for us, for who among us would willingly take up an agony? After all, we are welcomed guests, guests at a wedding.
3. Wedding guests
The opening three sections of Taggart’s poem set before us the most traditional of functions to be performed in a chapel: a wedding. While the origin of this wedding tableaux may be an overheard remark rich beyond measure in suggestion about wedding pictures taken in the Rothko chapel where the paintings all appear black, Taggart’s foregrounding of nuptials is an immediate comment on a space that seems designed for the single contemplative. (The model for the chapel’s interior, it has been argued, is the artist’s studio.) Taggart’s choice to stage a wedding speaks specifically as well to the poet’s own interest in forms of ritual, as is evident to anyone familiar with his poems about gospel music, soul, and jazz. Taggart needs to write at some proximity to actual communal practice.
Taggart’s remarks on “A Slow Song for Mark Rothko” reveal his early concern with ritual. In “Were You: Notes & A Poem for Michael Palmer” Taggart pursues his thinking on this issue, moving beyond the matter of the effect upon consciousness of ritual practice, to the matter of ritual communities, in this instance, to American Protestant ceremonial culture. He frets about the nature of the group, and the place of dissenting individuals within it. Taggart finds in the example of gospel music severe polarities that recall Nietzsche’s opposition of the Apollonian lyric with the Dionysian dithyramb. An irresolvable conflict lies at the heart of Taggart’s musings about gospel music, about the relation of the many to the one, and about what conditions of belief must be present for the choral singer to enter into the song without doubt. Those familiar with Taggart’s other works may suspect that this conflict goes beyond this particular subject, that Taggart is an agonist, drawn to imagining and overcoming fundamental oppositions. “You can’t doubt and sing with abandon,” the poet tells us. And what kind of musical structure must exist that can accommodate a “diversified assembly”? There is a severity in Taggart’s distinctions between the individual and the group that resolve themselves in his notion of the gap. This gap is both, it would seem, a part of musical structure and a way to contain multiplicity within unity. In various descriptions of his poetic method in regard to his reiterative poems Taggart has noted what must be a fraught moment in his compositional practice: the appearance of a gap, and the addition of an anomalous word within the gap, within the tightly controlled repetitions. Taggart clearly, at least at the time of the composition of the poems in Loop, invested considerable hope in the possibility of a structural relation between poetic form and ritual efficacy.
In the Rothko chapel poem, however, Taggart pursues the severity at the heart of his either/or conception of ceremonial culture. As the wedding triptych itself demonstrates, Taggart is in the grip of an immense drama that compels him to examine the fate of those disinvited from the wedding, a disinvitation which retains all the allegorical implications that might be expected, though it goes on to tell a tale of death and rebirth.
4. The welcome
Ultimately, Taggart draws our attention not so much to the bride or groom, but foremost to the greeting, the welcoming. It is within the logic of minimalist reduction that both Rothko and Taggart share the single moment of human contact, of human warmth, connectivity, and evocation of living ritual form. Humanity enters to the touch of welcome. Given Rothko’s early and possibly playful statement that the relation between painting and viewer should be nuptial as well, citing nothing less than Shakespeare’s “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments,” we might almost be in the world of color and mystery of Rothko’s pre-chapel work. One can sense in those earlier paintings an erotics embedded in perception itself, but the poem is careful, in keeping both with the formality of the place and the severity of the idiom Rothko devised in planning out his chapel, to distance us from the loving embrace of bride and groom. We are not ever one embraced by the other, but touched by them both, taken in hand. One might almost say that this welcoming is the very protagonist of the poem as it proceeds down the via dolorosa of the contemporary post-secular moment. We are cordially taken into a communal gathering, though we will soon feel ourselves become merely the occasion of the greeting, an occasion that calls up an immense nostalgia in the depths of the poem proper, a moment of a union not of bride and groom with each other but of bride and groom with us. We are implicitly threefold, for as long as the welcome lasts.
7. Sheldon Nodelman, The Rothko Chapel Paintings: Origin, Structure, Meaning (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997). Chapter 3, “The Meaning of the Chapel Instillation,” is especially helpful for thinking about Taggart’s poem. In particular, see Nodelman’s description of the “phenomenal structure of the installation,” 324–331.
With special reference to Theodor Adorno
“How to stay alive” or, repetition
“To become aware of tones // beginner’s problem in the mind of a beginner.” The opening to John Taggart’s 2008 homage to Louis Zukofsky, “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” reaffirms the abiding concern of Taggart’s poetics from first to last: how to think with and in sound. This concern manifests itself throughout his work, but is perhaps most notable in such major jazz- and R&B-inspired poems like “Drum Thing” (1969), “Giant Steps” and “Peace on Earth” (1981), “Marvin Gaye Suite” (1991), and 2004’s “Rhythm and Blues Singer,” his elegy for R&B singer James Carr, where he writes:
Language before writing
before the alphabet
a river of sound
The acoustic river runs throughout Taggart’s work and one of its most important tributaries is jazz.
When Taggart recalls that he “came to jazz just as I was,” he is describing a beginner’s state of mind: that fragile, requisite naïveté which makes poetic listening possible. In jazz, he notes, “what is to be asked for is how to stay alive.” The problem of jazz, then, is the problem of life. As Jennifer Ryan puts it: “jazz poetry accounts for the complexities and contradictions of both artistic innovation and social inequities.” Taggart’s moral imperative to stay alive, that is, to live free of social coercion, takes its cue from the music of John Coltrane, whose restless drive to push past boundaries alienated some listeners even as it signaled to others the beginning of a musical revolution whose implications were felt socially as well. What he was after in jazz, Taggart writes, was “the rhythmic character of the music … not a jazz poem … [it] would have to start from and go away from jazz.” The beginning of faith always entails a little heresy. Though jazz was his “informing source,” his place of worshipful attention (“Composition,” he declares, echoing Malebranche, “is attention”), Taggart realizes he must move past mere emulation into what he calls “the animal power of voice.” Paradoxically, this reveals the powerlessness of his own voice through a realization of the necessity to submit to the voice of the poem, “the voice which eats the face away,” as he puts it in an unexpectedly violent trope. What jazz comes to mean for Taggart, finally, is “learning and leaning in more intently in listening to be able to write.”
The question driving my inquiry has to do with how Taggart’s poem “Giant Steps” fuses the modalities of Coltrane’s late modernist jazz with an Objectivist emphasis on sound to create a poetry of radical repetition that is also deeply messianic, a poetry committed to the problem of “how to stay alive” which is the problem of how to intervene in the dehumanizing forces of history, how to rescue the person caught within the riptide of history. By radical repetition I mean a form of writing whose excessive use of refrain and reiteration creates a musical ex-scription, a poetry that writes outside the traditional methods of meaning production through its disruptive use of sound. Radical repetition undoes the usual aim of language as a conveyor of semantic stability by pushing against the grain of transparent meaning toward a semiotic music. Repetition is not simply repeating; rather, it’s what makes the poem stay alive.
Taggart’s poetry is at once utterly transparent and deeply thing-like. It is highly accessible in the sense that it does not exhibit aggressive syntactical torque; neither is it marked by patterns of complex allusion commonly associated with difficulty. Taggart’s difficulty is different. Irresistibly rhythmic, it’s almost childlike in its compulsive insistence on repetition, yet at the same time virtually opaque. Here is the first stanza of “Giant Steps”:
To want to be a saint to want to be a saint to want to
to want to be a saint to be the snake-tailed one to want to
be snake-tailed with wings to be a snake-tailed saint with wings to
want to be a saint to want to awaken men from nightmare.
The first section of Taggart’s poem is divided into two stanzas, the first consisting of four lines, the second of five (this pattern holds for the other three sections as well). Taggart’s diction is severely limited here. The first stanza contains a total of fifty-eight words, with “saint” occurring five times; “want” seven times; and, in the spirit of the Objectivists, “to” sixteen times. These three words account for twenty-eight of the fifty-eight words in the first four lines, or roughly half of all the words in the stanza. Likewise, in the second stanza, “dance” and “go” are each used eight times; “down” six times; “steps” five times; and “to” eighteen times, for a total of forty-five occurrences of five words out of seventy-three, or over two-thirds of the overall word count. Taggart leverages a maximal degree of poetic energy from an amazingly minimal means. What significance is there, though, to working in such a vein, other than the yield of dramatic power it grants the poem? And can we be sure that such repetition does in fact yield the power I argue for it here? Or does it merely succumb to a numbing monotony?
Taggart’s innovative use of repetition derives from a heuristic set of principles. “Not to reproduce a sound but to use it as a general principle to make another sound,” he writes, noting Augustine’s stress on repetition as a pedagogical device: “a mode of assuring the seeker that he is on his way, and is not merely wandering blindly through the chaos from which all forms arises.” Gilles Deleuze provides a resonant echo to these observations when he writes that:
To repeat is to behave in a certain manner, but in relation to something unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent. And perhaps this repetition at the level of external conduct echoes, for its own part, a more secret vibration which animates it, a more profound internal repetition within the singular.
What is crucial for Taggart’s sense of repetition is that it produces difference, not identity. To repeat a phrase, a word, a line is not to collapse or narrow distinctions between the terms of repetition and the rest of the poem. On the contrary, it is to open up a space of difference, which is, simply, figured as space itself, as a caesura, an intervention into the poem’s temporal scheme, the way it measures time and generates duration. The messianic splice of repetition, in other words, distends the poem. Elastic with tension, it drives an arc of sound along the narrow wire of song. What significance is there, though, to such dynamic constriction? The goal of repetition in Taggart is immersion into lived time. Felt time. Time as actual, tangible, passing. In his interview with Ornette Coleman, Jacques Derrida makes the case that the act of music, like the act of writing, is a unique, unreproducable event which is:
Nevertheless repeated in its very structure. Thus there is a repetition, in the work, that is intrinsic to the initial creation — that which compromises or complicates the concept of improvisation. Repetition is already in improvisation: thus when people want to trap you between improvisation and the pre-written, they are wrong.
To which Coleman eloquently responds: “Repetition is as natural as the fact that the earth rotates.” The impulse to repeat also drives the work of John Coltrane.
Along a line of melody: Coltrane’s sound
In a fit of pique once after a recording session, Miles Davis demanded of Coltrane: “why did you go on so long?” “It took me that long to get it all in,” replied Coltrane. This well-known anecdote gets to the heart of Coltrane’s core aesthetic. As he himself expressed it to Nat Hentoff, “You just keep going … you keep trying to get right down to the crux.” This is Taggart’s method, too: a desire to keep the thing aloft, continuous, in a restless quest for breakthrough. The goal may be transcendent, but the means are material. Archie Schepp, who played in Coltrane’s late avant-garde groups, observes that Trane’s method was predicated on a kind of music possessing a hitherto unthinkable range of expansion; solos would run for thirty, forty minutes; it would be uninterrupted music, continually evolving, continually seeking out the terms of its logic.
In his chapter on the thriving subgenre of jazz poetry devoted to Coltrane’s music, Sascha Feinstein mentions Taggart only by noting the issue of his journal, Maps (1969), which was devoted to poems for Coltrane. In a footnote, however, he does see fit to cite Taggart’s unease about the potential for such a tribute issue becoming “a collection of aesthetic and sterile games.” Taggart concludes that “it’s a risk worth taking: you could even say it’s demanded from this liberty to hear, to make what we can from it, as evidence that John Coltrane’s music is still very much with us.” Maps no. 3 appeared only two years after Coltrane’s death, at the age of forty, from liver failure. By 2002, jazz scholar David Ake can write with perfect confidence that Coltrane “has become a remarkably powerful figure,” one whose name has assumed an auratic status, signifying “a variety of musical, ethical, and spiritual attributes,” many of which are only loosely connected to Coltrane the person. As Ake, Ben Ratliff, and others have pointed out, “Giant Steps,” which signaled Trane’s major breakthrough, has become ensconced in jazz pedagogy to the degree that mastering its rapid chord changes signifies every apprentice sax player’s rite of passage.
It’s important to understand Coltrane’s accomplishment in relation to the modal jazz pioneered by Davis, which emphasized improvisation within a framework of austerity. As Ted Gioia puts it, “it was a minimalist response to the maximalist tendencies of postwar jazz.” But while Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” (released in 1959, the same year as Davis’s Kind of Blue) develops within a tight chord progression and Taggart’s poem adheres to the same sense of constraint, using and reusing the same set of keywords, there is nothing minimalist, in the usual sense, about either composition. Rather, minimalist constraints become the springboard for explorations of excess. Both works are overflowing, rich with a “too-muchness,” an abundance that pushes the listener/reader past the limits of the well-made object into an unmapped region of aesthetic experience, the place where snake-tailed saint, a messianic Quetzcoatl, dances.
As Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux explain, “Giant Steps” “is a sixteen-bar composition in which almost every note of the melody is signaled by a new chord — playing the chord changes is practically the same thing as playing the melody. The harmony extends the chord progression between equally distant tonal centers (the giant steps of the title). The aim of its aggressively fast-paced movement is “to trigger a sheets-of-sound jolt.” Around the time Coltrane recorded “Giant Steps,” Wayne Shorter came to know him. Shorter speaks of Coltrane’s desire “to speak the English language backwards, and not really in a playful way. It was, like, to speak backwards, to get at something else. To break patterns.”
Unlike Coltrane’s later elegy “Alabama,” for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed five black girls, nothing about “Giant Steps” per se suggests it was ever intended as an anthem of civil rights. Yet its bold innovation, which marks it as a milestone in the history of jazz, has invited other writers besides Taggart to see it as more than a musical watershed. Kevin Young, who named his 2000 anthology of African-American writers “Giant Steps,” declares that his title “pays homage to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps — which … changed the way we hear and see.” Michael S. Harper, Amiri Baraka, and Nathaniel Mackey are perhaps the most prominent among a large number of chiefly African American poets who have paid similar homage to Coltrane’s influence. “Giant Steps” (both the composition and the album) announces an inaugural moment for a new form of music, the articulation of a new set of possibilities for expression. Chord progression signals social activism. As Eric Nisenson puts it: “Giant Steps is, in a sense, a manifesto. Modern jazz had hit a dead end … but with the title tune, the bop technique of playing melodically over complex harmonic structures … was taken to its final extreme.” In her brilliant and far-ranging discussion of the Coltrane poem genre, Meta DuEwa Jones affirms the tenor’s significance for poets: “Music frees the soul, is soul. Poetic forms that are influenced by music, like the Coltrane poem, seek to transcend the boundaries of speech and music to inhabit the intangible realms of the spiritual, the emotional, and the soulful.” John Taggart’s “Giant Steps” attempts a similar transcendence of ordinary speech. Like Coltrane, he wants to break patterns, triggering his own sheets of sound effect, through the rhythmic jolts of the poem’s oceanic repetitions.
This repetition can come across not merely as mesmerizing, but exhausting; it makes extreme demands of its reader. The severity of this demand takes its cue not only from Coltrane’s desire to “break patterns” by pushing the music to the limit of what it can bear, but from Zukofsky’s intricate and disciplined attention to the play of sound in the poem. Zukofsky’s famous injunction for rendering the poem as an object required the rejection of any predatory intent, any coercion of language by sentiment. Sincerity, a slippery, often misleading, term in this context, meant that the poem must be a record, in part, of the encounter with phenomenon, achieved, Zukofsky writes, by “thinking with the things as they exist … directing them along a line of melody.” In his essay on Zukofsky’s “Songs of Degrees,” Taggart elaborates:
A melody is a continuous movement that is always on its way. It is not the sum of its component sound details but is the progress of the moving line passing through the successive sounds. In Zukofsky’s usage, however, melody is both the continuously moving line as it grows and defines itself in the concatenation of word sound detail, and it is the completed structure or form that is the culmination and the memory of that motion. It is both noun and verb … above all it has to be understood that meaning, like its melody, exists in the words, and that the two are inextricable.
Zukofsky puts it more succinctly in A Test of Poetry: “cadence plus definite language equal the full meaning.” In “Song of Degrees” the cadence is powerful: “Hear, her / Clear mirror, / Care / His error. / In her / Care / Is clear.” What Taggart concludes in this important statement on poetics is highly characteristic of him: the animating principle of Zukofsky’s poetry is “care,” a word that denotes the technical nuances of attention as much as the ethical imperatives of compassion. “Care, then use, are the lessons to be learned. Otherwise, reading serves only to distract us from perception.”. The Objectivist emphasis on immediacy here means cultivating a sensitivity to perception, not so much in the hope of erasing the medium of transmission, which in any case would be impossible, but out of a disciplined approach to its impact on the senses, the intellect, and language, conceived of melodically, that is, in its semiotic rather than semantic register.
Toward a poetics of the standing wave or, messianic jazz
Taggart insists that “the history of poetry in our century is only superficially the history of the struggle to make it new. More enduring is the struggle to regain the definition of poetry as spiritual ascesis.” To accomplish this, poets can either immerse themselves in spiritual literature, he suggests, or immerse themselves in language. The latter method has been Taggart’s primary one. As Marjorie Perloff, writing on Rosmarie Waldrop, notes: “the language pool” has become “the new Spiritus Mundi.” In her introduction to Taggart’s essays, Perloff describes Taggart’s poetry as one of rapture, achieved not through visionary trance, but with “an intricate incantation produced by permutating sounds and silences.” This effect is on full display in Taggart’s “Giant Steps.”
“Giant Steps” is a poem that dreams of — and urges — a breakthrough. This breakthrough is induced by rhetorical means — through internal anaphora.
To want to be a saint to want to be a saint to want to
be a snake-tailed saint with wings to leap upon the horse-headed the
blue-eyed woman with the little moon the woman with nine shadows
who chokes the throat to want to be a saint to wake men from nightmare.
To speak of breakthrough, that elusive and rhetorically abused state of rupture and metanoia, means, in Taggart’s case, to speak of a formal methodology that draws from the materiality of repeated words and phrases. The effect induces a kind of lucid vertigo. The poem becomes an elaborate echo chamber where speech regains its vibrant immediacy, its saying of the now, through call and response, song and countersong.
This emphasis on the instant of song makes it interruptive rather than reflective. Taggart’s poem forces us to rethink what we thought we knew about the relationship between the materiality — or acoustic properties — of the word, and the effects it generates, which we tend to call spiritual but in fact have more to with an experience of embodiment. This acoustic power takes on a messianic charge, in the sense defined by Walter Benjamin. It blasts apart conventional modes of listening. Conceived of as a kind of punctum or caesura, messianic poetics aims to produce an experience of what Benjamin calls “now-time” through a sharp intervention that destroys the illusion of continuity fostered by historicism’s efforts to fold the past seamlessly into the present.
A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes a cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history.
Cessation and blasting are classic expressions of the modernist call to revolution and belong to what Peter Osborne calls “a form of avant-garde experience.” As he explains it, delineating Benjamin’s notion of “now-time,” “the avant-garde is that which, in the flash of the dialectical image, disrupts the linear time-consciousness of progress in such a way as to enable us, like the child, to discover the new anew and along with it, the possibility of a better future.” For Benjamin, the messianic is not so much a practical political strategy for devising ideal forms of national statehood, as it is a drastic incursion into the amnesia of historical reification. To free history from the myths the present constructs around it is the key task of messianic poetics, as Benjamin envisions it. This is what it means “to raise men with a horn / a tenor horn to go to go down to raise men from nightmare.”
A messianic poetics stakes its claim for intervening in historical consciousness on the power of song to rescue experience. The experience, as Taggart might say, is the song.
To go down to raise to go down to raise to go to go down the
ladder to go down as taught as dance steps taught by the master as
taught to dance to step-dance to dance with giant steps to go to dance to
step-dance to dance with giant steps as taught by the master to
dance to go down the ladder to go down to raise men from nightmare
In his study of the fold, Deleuze says that “the problem is not how to finish a fold, but how to continue it, to have it go through the ceiling, how to bring it to infinity.” The task of the fold is self-perpetuation ad infinitum, but within a finite space. This kind of folding, this iterative poetics of repetition and intervention, is what both Coltrane and Taggart are striving for. The song, the poem, both fold over on themselves, turning inside out, rushing with a headlong momentum into a process of endless self-resembling replication. Ira Gitler’s now talismanic phrase “sheets of sound,” first used in his liner notes to 1958’s Soultrane to describe Coltrane’s “Russian Lullaby,” the album’s final track, answers to this idea of the fold. Later, Gitler expanded on this phrase, describing Coltrane’s sheets of sound as “a density of texture [in which the] multi-note improvisations were so thick and complex [that they produced] a continuous flow of ideas without stopping.” Folding, sheeting — these actions are key to Taggart’s poetics which might, after the title of one of his more taxing works, be called a poetics of the standing wave.
A standing wave occurs when a wave remains in a constant, or stationary, position, usually as a result of an oppositional flow to the medium it is traveling through. Picture an oscillating wave of water in a small pool where the energy of the wave does not dissipate, but remains constant. Or the two ends of a jump rope being spun or twirled in such a way that the rope appears stationary. This kind of vibration can only occur at specific harmonic frequencies. It is a powerful metaphor for Taggart — the idea of a deeper stillness or stasis generated within an energetic motion.
For Peter O’Leary, one of Taggart’s most perceptive readers (and the editor of his selected poems, Is Music) this deeper stillness of the standing wave is mystical. In his provocative reading of “Peace on Earth,” another Coltrane-based composition dating from the same period as “Giant Steps,” he calls Taggart’s poetics a form of “language mysticism, something akin to the via negativa or apophasis of Christian mystics.” Taggart, writes O’Leary, “uses the sound of words to erode or undermine their meaning, allowing the words to transcend into a hypostatic realm of Word, capitalized.”
O’Leary identifies the goal of Taggart’s poetics as one in which “the discovery of voice … is also the generation of a new spiritual knowledge, a new theology of the Word of God, centered on the sound rather than the lexical meaning of the word.” Zukofsky himself gestures toward this in his tantalizingly elliptical remarks in “An Objective”: “A poem. A poem as object … Perfect rest — Or nature as creator, existing perfect, experience perfecting activity of existence, making it — theologically perhaps — like the Ineffable.” The trouble with an overdetermined term like hypostasis, however, is that it substantiates its claim to authority on an extra-linguistic “something” — the Word of God — a word that is not a word at all, since it is entirely unmarked by the sound of language as such. To emphasize sound over lexicality does not, ipso facto, move the poem into the realm of hypostasis. For what can be under song? The most obvious answer is: the body; the human voice. To hypostasize the poem is to reify logos, the very charge Theodor Adorno levels at Martin Heidegger, accusing him of trafficking in a “jargon of authenticity” in which “that which is empty becomes an arcanum: the mystery of being permanently in ecstasy over some numinous thing which is preserved in silence.” Moreover, it’s not clear how Taggart’s poetry is negational. Unlike, say, a contemporary such as Michael Palmer, who has made tropes of silence and erasure central to his poetics, Taggart’s poetry is boldly and unequivocally affirmative: cataphatic rather than apophatic. That said, Taggart clearly writes against the grain of semantic transmission in order to break through conventional signifying.
To say that “it is language which speaks, not the author,” as Barthes does (echoing Heidegger), may be merely to shift logos from a theological to an a-theological register, but it’s nevertheless an important move since it frees the spiritual poem from the idol of transcendence and returns it to the material world and the body, to the site of actual, rather than imagined, experience, cognition and struggle. My reading of Taggart is perhaps not significantly different from O’Leary’s and may be no more than a quibble, just another instance in the poetry world of the narcissism of small differences. But if Taggart is a spiritual poet (and he is) his spirituality, as I read it, is messianic — on the way to God, waiting in the hope of a God who may be and who may come, as Richard Kearney puts it. For Kearney, the eschatological God replaces the onto-theological God. The former, he writes, “possibilizes our world from out of the future, from the hoped-for eschaton.” This messianic god is defined by desire rather than presence. “To want to be a saint” is more important than actually being a saint (whatever that may be). Taggart’s posture here calls to mind Tarrou’s eloquent ambition in Camus’s The Plague: “Can one be a saint without God? — that’s the problem, in fact the only problem I’m up against today.” To quest for a God who comes after God, a post-metaphysical God, a weak God whose potential for redemption manifests itself more as possibility than an actuality, is more powerful than a God who merely is, static and inert, absolute and sovereign.
O’Leary’s reading may over-rely on its appeal to hypostasis, but it also goes far beyond that, seeing in Taggart’s work a compelling instance of breath movement drawn from Pseudo-Dionysius’s tract on negative theology, The Divines Names, and Coltrane’s practice of circular breathing, “a technique of playing the saxophone … in which the player maintains a steady impulse of air moving through the horn,” even on the in-breath, so that the horn is continually issuing sound. This kind of circular breathing finds a parallel in the yogic breath cycling practiced by the Eastern Orthodox sect of hesychasts, the most well-known example of which is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer, familiar to readers of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (and indeed, to readers of O’Leary’s own incandescent poetry, which draws from The Philokalia), and elaborated on in the anonymously authored Russian text, The Way of a Pilgrim, derives from Paul’s command to the Thessalonians: “pray without ceasing.” The prayer itself is quite simple: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” As the spiritual advisor of the unnamed narrator explains: “The continuous interior Prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine Name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart.”
“With the lips.” The practice of prayer may eventually take internal root, but first it must start with the lips, in the body, not the spirit, as an uninterrupted form of speech. It’s spoken, sung, chanted — played.
To go down to raise to go down to raise to go to down the
ladder to go down as taught as dance steps taught by the master
run lines from “Giant Steps,” while in “Peace on Earth” one quatrain follows a similar pattern:
To lift up to go singing
to hold hands with men and women
to sing and hold hands with the children
to go forward as a chorus without burden
What links the Jesus Prayer to Coltrane’s sheets of sound to Taggart’s artful cycle of repetitions is not mystical as such. It is sound waves. “All sounding bodies,” the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz states, “are in a state of vibration … any series of impulses which produces a vibration of air will, if repeated with sufficient rapidity, generate sound. This sound becomes a musical tone when such rapid impulses recur with perfect regularity and in precisely equal times.” It’s worth noting, in this context, that Helmholtz’s theory of the conservation of energy was the first serious attempt to contest the widely held view that the animating source of muscle tissue was some immaterial spirit. Like the Jesus Prayer, “Giant Steps” cannot occur in the soundless realm of the hypostatic; it is an event of the body and its singular power derives from this.
A poetics of the standing wave is intensely vibratory. It is marked by a devotion to the sound of the poem as it gradually unravels the semantic, sense-making mechanics of language into the semiotic musicality of language’s body, as these lines from Standing Wave attest to:
it is a poem about singing about reasons for singing
reasons one of the reasons for singing
the reason was to light the most quiet light
the reason was to light the light that was radiantia
radiantia that was a singing light in darkness
“Giant Steps,” then, offers something like a poetic model combining the uninterrupted prayer of the hesychasts and Coltrane’s shimmering sheets of sound. Taggart’s use of repetition, his control of cadence, generates Gitler’s “density of texture,” its thickness and complexity, its sense of continuous flow. Such comparisons, of course, only carry so far. As Mark Scroggins reminds us, a poem cannot make words do the work of notes; it cannot produce pitch or the harmony that results from multiple notes simultaneously laid over one another. But like music, it takes place as a singular event in the speaking of it, carrying the power to waken men from nightmare. Taggart’s deep affiliation with Zukofsky anchors his spiritual yearning to a materialist, or immanentist, poetics of sound. Yet while Taggart is not, strictly speaking, a sound poet, ala Kurt Schwitters, he does, as Burt Kimmelman observes, use a staggered syntax of “overlapping waves of clauses … to direct our attention toward the sheer materiality of the words themselves.” Taggart’s emphasis on sound, derived from Zukofsky and Coltrane, is just as motivated by a desire for social justice as it is the sacred. “Giant Steps,” at any rate, is a poem that wants to interrupt the tyranny of homogeneity that is historical consciousness by signaling another mode of relation language.
It may seem perverse to cite Theodor Adorno in this context, for whom jazz was only part of the phantasmagoria of modernity, the lulling background music of the culture industry’s manufacture of a “perennial sameness” in which “fashion enthrones itself as something lasting.” But as J. Bradley Robinson has illuminatingly argued, the reactions to Adorno’s attacks on jazz are based on two misconceptions: “first, that it referred to what we regard today as jazz, and second, that the music it referred to was American.” Adorno’s poor reception of jazz was based on Weimar republic dance hall bands of the 1920s and never really moved beyond that, even after he was exiled in America. This alone is not quite sufficient to counter his hostility toward such an aesthetically vibrant form.
Nevertheless, it’s worth considering some other remarks he made on music since they offer another way to understand Taggart’s jazz poetics. In his beguiling fragment on music and language, Adorno notes that:
Music resembles a language … [but] is not identical with language … anyone who takes it literally will be seriously misled … music resembles language in the sense that it is a temporal sequence of articulated sounds which are more than just sounds. They say something, often something human.
And yet, he advises:
The language of music is quite different from the language of intentionality. It contains a theological dimension. What it has to say is simultaneously revealed and concealed. Its Idea is the divine Name which has been given shape. It is demythologized prayer, rid of efficacious magic. It is the human attempt, doomed as ever, to name the Name, not to communicate meanings.
This naming of the Name as such, a concept Adorno borrows from Benjamin’s early essay “On the Language of Men and Language as Such,” is only an idea of the divine, a yearning gesture made toward an absent, impossible, and necessary grace. As Benjamin notes, “naming is that by which nothing beyond it is communicated, and in which language itself communicates itself absolutely. In naming the mental entity that communicates itself is language.” This naming by which naming names its own condition is semiotic and material. Yet it also leads to or opens up an experience of language that is outside of language; neither nonsense nor mysticism, it is something else altogether.
Taggart’s messianic poetics works the seam between two antithetical positions, forcing us to think the aporia of their relationship, the necessity of reconciling them and the impossibility of doing so. “To want to be a saint … to go down to raise”: this shuttling motion between dream and nightmare, song and history, drives the poem’s urgent momentum toward a resolution that is hoped for rather than achieved. “To raise men from nightmare” with a horn, or a song, is the project still to come, always to come — the continual task of the poem, which takes place in an arena mapped, on the one side, by Adorno’s grim assessment that, “No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb,” and the other by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s utopian insistence that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice.” For Taggart, writing two decades after Coltrane and well after the crest of the civil rights movement, the challenge of taking giant steps toward peace on earth begins with the small assertions the poem can make. Or as he puts it in “In True Night”:
Of the constant song I keep some of the words
Some of the basic words of the song in the air
To dance lily-flower dance and forget the steps
To sing the song beyond all songs on the radio.
26. If melody must be attended to in a way that asks the poet to think with things, through a devotional process of perception, just how far can we ask it to carry us along? Tracing it on from Pound’s principle of melopoeia, Mark Scroggins points to a fundamental confusion among poets who apply the seductive analogical rhetoric of melody to the spoken word of the poem. Poets have long been fond of mapping musical forms onto the lyric. Bunting claims it began with Spenser. But as Scroggins, a musician himself notes, “melopoeia is not identical to music” (Louis Zukofsky and the Poetry of Knowledge [Tuscaloosa: Alabama University Press, 1998], 172). Because words must entrain themselves, occurring in a poem in discrete time units, “the harmonization of simultaneous notes” available to musical composers, is simply not possible in a poem. Yet this metaphorical connection persists and retains its power because of the potentiality contained within the idea of simultaneity and multiplicity. This yearning of the poem to be transformed into pure music is messianic inasmuch as it interrupts language’s common function of communication.
40. In book 5 of The Enneads, Plotinus explains that the One is comprised of three hypostases, consisting of the self-causing and absolute One itself, the Intellectual Principle, and the Soul. The latter two emanate or radiate from the One. This structure lent itself to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: that God was Three Persons-in-One. This awkward scheme tries to answer to the gap between the world of embodied experience, where motion and decay exist, and a fetishized Absolute of eternal non-motion. See Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 359.
43. Richard Kearny, The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2001), 1. Kearney does not go so far as to reject the hypostatic nature of Christ’s divinity. Rather he looks to Merleau-Ponty’s model of the body-subject as “chiasmic crossing-over of visible carnality and invisible transcendence: as double but indivisible … the two natures are in one person (hypostasis)” (135). This seems to me a very willful misreading of Merleau-Ponty.
45. John Caputo explores this idea in The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Indiana University Press, 2006). For Caputo, event theology replaces the theology of the word, which is what I take hypostasis to subscribe to. Building on Derrida’s notion of God as a promise of the still-to-come and on Benjamin’s weak messianic force as an intervention into the past, rather than the future, Caputo articulates a post-metaphysical conception of God that answers to the suffering of history and the other rather than the empty triumphalism of the vindicated spirit.
53. Burt Kimmelman, “Quantum Syntax: John Taggart’s Discrete Serialism,” Flashpoint no. 5 (2002).
56. Robinson provides a thorough examination of how Adorno came to understand jazz as the popular music of fascism. For one thing, Adorno insisted that jazz did not originate with American blacks “in the very lowest rungs of society,” but somehow precipitated downwards from the German upper classes (19). More tellingly, Joseph Lewandowski observes that, contrary to Adorno’s call for art forms that would answer to the failure of modernity and its hopes for utopia through a strict negativity (think Beckett and Celan), “jazz is a promise of happiness that refuses to be broken … jazz is not demythologized prayer but secularized social composition” (“Adorno on Jazz and Society,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 22, no. 5 : 117). Likewise, Nick Nesbitt, in his essay “Deleuze, Adorno, and the Composition of Musical Multiplicity,” in Deleuze and Music, ed. Ian Buchanan and Marcel Swiboda (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), describes Coltrane’s modal jazz as “music [that] instantiates productive, radically constituent musical subjectivity as a critique of the alienation and violence of what Toni Negri, following Spinoza, calls potestas or ‘constituted Power.’ For Coltrane, this transcendental Power lay not only in the reigning violence of Jim Crow America, but in the sedimented forms of musical expression itself” (71).