Contextualized notes on John Taggart's prosody
Part 1: Contexts for John Taggart’s prosody
John Taggart asks his readers to read his poems aloud. You could take this with varying degrees of seriousness. You could take it as a naïve or wistful resurgence of nostalgia. Or it may emphasize the importance of a highly original form of prosody, perhaps with links to several stages of interaction in linguistic evolution, practical literacy, and poetry in general at a time when it could be seen both as a deeply troubled art and an art with more potential than most of its practitioners realize. If this sounds hyperbolic, I’d like to point out a major cultural and linguistic shift which is too large to discuss in this essay. With the printing technologies of the Industrial Revolution, the immense growth of population and the rapid spread of literacy that accompanied industrialization, silent reading became more common, and silent readers read at speeds that had nothing to do with speech. It is possible that this introduced major shifts in communication and perception, as did the advent of literacy in one epoch and the invention of printing from moveable types in another. But we don’t need to go into such difficult and large-scale speculation to understand that the most basic groundwork of poetry, an art which had been solely defined by patterns of sound from the preliterate days when oral-formulaic composition held societies together, had irrevocably changed with the changes in reading practice. One of the factors in the growing experimentalism in poetry between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries may be seen as a response to the waning of the many facets of sound in reading.
During the period from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, John Taggart developed a dynamic prosody, some of its elements derived from music of different eras, some from the practices of other poets, some through combining several techniques he developed himself. Initially, Taggart was building up a vocabulary of acoustic patterns. Later, he would combine many of them in such a way as to make the combination part of the art. In the general literary environment, the number of diverse “poetic” methods in practice, and the number of poets working in them, had become so large that it seems unlikely anyone could keep track of them all, or see much that all of them held in common. Some poets moved partly or completely away from the sonic base of traditional poetry, composing sequences of lines whose breaks had no significance other than looking like those of older forms of poetry, writing a growing number of different types of prose poems, or seeing the basis of poetry as motivation — as a type of sentiment or a special utterance proceeding from an “exalted state of mind” or from “heightened perception” or as a means of exploring referentiality or “interrogating” various forms of language and its uses or as a vehicle for recording personal epiphanies or as an art based in certain types of “image,” either created in the imagination by the suggestive capacity of words or by literal images on the page. Some of the confusing nature of different forms of prosody as the twentieth century moved on may be suggested by poets who took the same sources in different directions. Outside most of Taggart’s antecedents, Beat poets and some Projectivists (e.g. Joel Oppenheimer) evolved long lines inspired and informed by Bop jazz. It’s almost impossible to notate the precise jazz parallels of these poets, but it’s not difficult to hear if you’re familiar enough with the music and the poetry it suggested. Taggart took ideas from the same jazz musicians, but with results that bear virtually no resemblances to the prosody of other poets who worked from the same sources. Many of those who did not follow any of these directions concentrated on sound properties which had not been explored in previous periods, or tried to work with sonic properties from ancient or non-Western sources. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll just say that those most important to Taggart cultivated a sense of what many of them called “musicality” as a base for their prosody.
In his early work, Taggart became increasingly adept at a number of different types of musicality. He was particularly fluent in those that had evolved from the work of poets with a strong background in actual musical practice, and to some extent, those disciplined in traditional verse forms. He developed his ear from Louis Zukofsky, part of whose prosody evolved from music, and from the poetry of HD, who had a rigorous background, beginning early, in classical Greek verse. Robert Duncan, like Zukofsky, with reinforcement from Ezra Pound, had ears trained in music and in classic prosody. Taggart could also pick up on recently invented rhythms, such as those which Robert Creeley created with short lines and “syncopated” line breaks, with variations (melodically neutral to complex) between the breaks. Duncan and Creeley worked out highly individualized procedures while taking part in the development of the more general Projective Verse initiated by Charles Olson: their multi-tiered practice suggesting some of the dynamics of invention which the drive for a viable and evolving musicality encouraged. Perhaps above all, Taggart adapted ideas from his own listening to music from European traditions beginning in the medieval era and encompassing those of American jazz. In the later part of this early period, Taggart not only developed new forms, but he combined them with older forms, and even with the hybrids that resulted.
Taggart worked with memory in ways few other poets did at the time. His use of memory worked through characteristics of composition and of reading at a time when poetry was redefining itself. In using forms of prosody which are insistently aural, Taggart moved away from the ethereal and abstract character which silent reading implied and fostered. A silent reader can enter a “personal space” which can have special qualities and characteristics. Such personal space does not duplicate the character of reading aloud, but creates new dimensions of reading and new opportunities for writers and for readers. Like freedom from received forms and fixed definitions of poetry, these dimensions become new areas to explore. Yet if a writer who expects the “audience” to read silently does not take this space into consideration during composition, the poem can become more like the consumer items that people in our society take for granted and which can eat away not only the consumer goods themselves but the society around them. In practices such as printing books, I was doing something like asking readers to read the poems aloud: I was making the books that subtly insisted on their tactile qualities and other cues to handmade origin, partially in order to fight against the deadening effects of a social and economic order that had no place for poetry. Taggart was making poems tangible by composing them for vocalization; and even for the sense or memory of vocalization if the poems were read silently. This was particularly important in an environment where people seldom read aloud and often were scarcely aware of poems as constructs that could be heard.
The complexity of Taggart’s prosody at this time is one of the reasons why he is particularly justified in asking his “readers” to read his poems aloud. Reading them in addition to hearing them augments and emphasizes their sonic complexity. If members of Taggart’s “audience” do not read and hear the poems, they probably won’t catch many of the sonic layers in the poetry. They will miss other layers of significance, too. In the long run, it is possible that Taggart will emerge as a pivotal or transitional figure in larger changes in poetry. If so, although it may seem paradoxical, it may be particularly important for poets deliberately and consciously working with the “space” and “unspecified time frames” of silent reading to read Taggart aloud. They may better understand what they are doing by understanding what they’re discarding or ignoring. If my speculations about silent reading prove untenable, using the concepts I put forward as a heuristic device may have some value in calling attention to sound properties of poetry, if nothing else. Certainly, however, continuing to ignore major possibilities opened up by silent reading and the abandonment of received forms is an unfortunate waste.
Although I was interested in Taggart’s use of memory in formulating a new prosody, and worked with related ideas and principals, neither of us was doing work that derived from the other. Even when we picked up ideas from the same musical sources, the results were significantly different, and only distantly related in the finished poems. Still, the fact that we were both working with related principles gives me a place from which to consider Taggart’s work. Since prosody is in itself a difficult area to explore in an environment of change and loss of constants, use of “memory” as an element of verse in a field where even “musicality” is undefined, if not ignored, seems particularly useful.
My first contact with Taggart began with an exchange of letters in regard to his magazine, Maps, in the late 1960s. This was after I began publishing books using mimeo machines in 1966, but before I went through my apprenticeship in offset printing, beginning in 1970. I had planned to set up a cottage industry as the center of activities, specifically literary to generally sociopolitical. I made the first payments on a house within easy walking distance of the second largest academic library in the state, in a neighborhood in Milwaukee that included writers, artists, musicians, scholars, and activists, with a healthy compliment of co-ops and other related ventures, including an automobile mechanics’ collective and a full clinic. I bought my own press a year later, and producing books became integrated with everything else that happened in the house. In the next move, I cofounded the Water Street Arts Center with Pat Wagner in 1972. This went through a number of experimental stages perhaps best marked by changes in personnel, with Pat leaving in 1975, and the hiring of Karl Gartung as store manager in 1977, when funding for the purpose became available. With Gartung, I cofounded its heir, Woodland Pattern Book Center, at the end of the decade.
The decentralized cottage industry approach had plenty of cognates and antecedents. Some new dimensions were just coming into possibility, and some have particular relevance now. In this period, for instance, people had begun to talk about practical solutions to environmental problems, including the use of recycled paper. Most recycled papers available then as now weren’t much better for the environment than virgin pulp stock. I was one of a very, very small number of printers of any sort who produced books on truly responsible papers. Working the way I did was one of the few ways I could find out what papers were good, and which simply used the jargon of environmentalism as a sales device. In the 1970s, the best papers, which tended to be difficult to work with, needed empirical testing. For the most part, they did not get it. HTML coding did get the widespread testing by an adequate number of people on “the bleeding edge” of the tech, albeit it in a completely different way and for different reasons, in the 1990s. I began writing this essay at the end of 2012, the hottest year on record, with massive floods, melting polar ice aided by oil drilling, and legions of other ecological malpractices and disasters. I’d like to see a surge in understanding of the complexity of environmental issues, and how much they depend on integrating as much of that understanding as possible into the fabric of daily life — but it’s probably being unreasonably optimistic to hope for that. Should I bother to mention the collapse of the middle class and the rapid growth of neofeudalism?
I wanted writing, publishing, and other literary activities integrated in the same holistic, human-scale, internationally connected but not centrally controlled exchange system I tried to create in the cottage industry paradigm. Among other dimensions of practice, that meant I was trying to avoid becoming a member or adherent of any of the literary schools which were becoming more rigid and removed from each other. I wanted to develop as extensive a vocabulary of methods and goals as possible. I saw America’s multicultural base expanding rapidly, and wanted to create a poetry that reflected this diversity by working, on one hand, with multiple literary and artistic cultures from their origins to their latest development; and, on the other hand, with the resources of a century of European and American avant-gardes which also seemed to be gathering momentum.
In publishing, as in writing, I tried, and continue to try, to combine pluralism and concentration. During the period when John Taggart was developing his prosody to its most complex, most of the books I published were by a relatively small number of people. I published more than one book by half of them, and worked with them on related literary efforts. Some, such as Barbara Einzig and Toby Olson, may relate to the whole project (and Olson may have been a friend of Taggart’s), but they didn’t form a direct and meaningful part of a literary continuum with him. Others did, but in different degrees. Jerome Rothenberg covered nearly a complete spectrum of innovative modes; however, the affinities between his work and Taggart’s are abstract, and may be strong or may not exist at all, depending on how you see invention and the reuse of the work of artistic antecedents. Jackson Mac Low and bpNichol related to each other in exploring visual dimensions of language and in different approaches to sound poetry and performance art. Theodore Enslin approached verse composition from a musical background, but did so in a way that was not immediately audible to those who did not understand his training, practice, methods, and antecedents. Taggart stood between Mac Low and Nichol on one hand and Enslin on the other. Taggart produced poetry based in musical invention, as did Enslin, but though his musical devices were more immediately noticeable than Enslin’s, he did not move into song or sound poetry, as did Mac Low and Nichol. In deciding whom to publish, I was not thinking only, or even primarily, of prosody as such; but it seems important to note how much differences and similarities in such practices follow differences and similarities in other areas. It also seems important how many types of artistic spectra a relatively small number of poets who don’t belong to a single movement can suggest or reveal.
The practice of publishing multiple works in multiple forms by the same writers is part of what I called “triangulation:” presenting the work of poets from more than one point of view, and as contextualized and interrelated with whatever might enhance it and make it not only more dynamic, but, perhaps paradoxically, more fully itself. A partial description of this practice appears in the introduction to “Some Volumes of Poetry.” I can sketch the activities of one version of the process easily enough in Taggart’s case: I wrote several reviews of his work, published poems, self-commentary, and a bibliography in a magazine, published two books, Dodeka and Dehiscence, which seemed to mark major transition points in his development, arranged readings for him, published an audio tape of him reading, and commissioned him to edit a symposium. When possible, I arranged for other people to write about the work of those I published; I asked those I published to comment on what they were doing themselves; and commissioned them to write about, edit, and create group commentary on other poets and artists — both to contribute to a broaderliterary ecosystem, and also to try to encourage each writer to sharpen his or her sense of their own work by the way they interacted with their peers.
I not only wrote about poets I published and asked them to write commentary, primarily for Margins magazine; I also started a symposium series there. The series didn’t last long, and I arranged for the publication of about half the symposiums I started or commissioned in other magazines after Margins folded. In these, I was as concerned with guest and coeditors or with characteristics they shared or developed as I was with the subjects. In Taggart’s symposium on Ted Enslin, which I arranged for publication in Truck magazine after Margins collapsed, I hoped that the two poets would find contributors who would explore interrelations between contemporary poetry and music. In the last symposium, on Tom Phillips, Ian Tyson, and Joe Tilson, guest edited by Kevin Power, I gave an extra push by subtitling it “Between Poetry and Painting.”
Despite numerous problems, some of the symposiums worked better than even I expected: although the series didn’t go on long enough for me to be able to sell it as a package to a publisher such as Twaine, material and ideas from most installments continues to be used, often enough in unconventional ways or unexpected places. In 2005, Ron Silliman acknowledged precisely what I had hoped the guest editors would gain: “It was Karl who originally invited me to edit a special issue of Margin[s] on the poetry of Clark Coolidge, which more than anything made me conscious of the value of being able to talk & write critically about new modes of poetry.”
Part 2: John Taggart’s prosody in practice
My first publication related to John Taggart was a 1974 review of Pyramid Canon, a portion of The Pyramid Is a Pure Crystal, in Margins magazine. My correspondence with Taggart had become important and detailed by ’74. Going by a list of publications for Stations magazine which appears to have been compiled by Taggart himself,the Pyramid review was one of the first regarding his poetry published anywhere. The next year, I published Three Poems Beginning with Lines by HD and an essay, which I believe was part of his doctoral dissertation, in Stations magazine.
The poems in Stations show some of the first level of musicality I appreciated. I had seen some of the more innovative work Taggart was beginning, but at this stage I was happy with the milder lyricism of these poems. Here is a passage from “Tsuzumi,” the second of the three poems, suggesting the musicality that people familiar with HD and Louis Zukofsky would appreciate:
They are ghosts
And are still separate, charms past use
They have no meeting together,
Ghosts moving their sleeves
To the sound of the drum
In addition to the lyricism of such passages, this set of poems includes some hints at practices Taggart would extend later, such as individualized forms of repetition, near repetition, and syncopated line breaks:
Yellow circle yellow circle, yellow circles
Touch, fill a white square.
In composing Pyramid Is A Pure Crystal, Taggart had used physical models for the disposition of words, and was doing something similar with Dodeka. Perhaps the graphic nature of the two books echoes the three-dimensional space of the models.
Dodeka, much like Pyramid Is A Pure Crystal, included pages with printed sets of rectangular boxes surrounding brief lines in large type that seemed to push or be constricted by their boxes. Longer passages in freer lineation and smaller type followed each set of boxes. We called the texts in the boxes “arias” to distinguish them from the longer passages which Taggart called “unisons.”
The arias made sonic use of the short lines and the varying degree to which they followed or worked against the natural progression of the text. Here is the first aria, presented without the box-frame and large type:
Face cut: seeds spill
seeds within seeds
on fire, white sparks
in a dark house.
Taggart does not continue the use of an identical number of syllables in these four lines through the other arias, but the even line length helps keep this first one from some of the greater strain in many that follow. The line breaks don’t work as strongly against the sense of the text as some of those that follow, either, but there is enough stress in the breaks to create the base of a rhythm for this brief poem. Some of that rhythm comes from the emphasis the line breaks place on the words on both sides of the breaks. If the line breaks weren’t enough, internal phrase breaks and punctuation add more. Although Taggart is using the sparse punctuation which will become more important to him later, he carefully marks internal breaks in the first and third lines with a colon and a comma. Since this is a relatively smooth passage, the symmetry of the first and third line internally breaking in the middle balances nicely.
This poem’s syntactic construction includes some moderate ambiguities. Do seeds spill seeds within seeds, or is “seeds within seeds” an amplification of “seeds spill”? Each new line adds a bit of surprise and may initially suggest that someone reading the poem aloud back up and reconsider phrases before deciding on a final reading. Frequently, the need to go back over a phrase creates a pattern, and one in which the phrase may include a variation in the repetition. The ambiguities suggest a pace for reading, whether silently or aloud.
Bearing more traditional poetry in mind, alliteration adds to the poem: the massed s sounds in the first two lines continue in the third, but disappear in the fourth. This bears a slight resemblance to a device used in Old Norse verse, where the release from repeated consonants is as pleasant and as dynamic as their initial repetition. However, there is a near-rhyme in “sparks” and “dark,” and this device helps clinch the image of sparks in a dark house, whether the image seems sinister or pleasant, whether the reader understands the seeds in the poem as suggesting those which return Persephone to the underworld each year, or the home stores of harvest, or a serious autumnal ritual, or even something as odd as the current observance of Halloween.
The first unison begins with these lines:
Eyes on fire
burn bright, eyes on fire burn, eyes
Fire eyes cut earth face
seeds like dice, like wine
seeds pour out, then die
white sparks in fire’s light,
dark in dark house.
It’s hard not to notice the words and phrases repeated from the first aria. Something important is happening in these repetitions. Many devices used in poetry depend on memory of sounds. If you didn’t remember sounds, you wouldn’t be able to hear rhyme or alliteration, for instance. But a fair amount of time passes between some of the words and phrases in the arias and their repetition in the unisons. This is quite different from what we usually think of as traditional forms of prosody. The poet can create a number of sonic patterns and long-scale tonalities by letting the sounds blur or by pushing the reader to strain a little to remember the previous similarity in sound. For some, memory across time can create a haunting effect; for others, it can create a sense of space.
Words not found in the first aria come from other arias. This will become stronger as the work moves through its arias and unisons, so that it creates patterns of repetition within repetition and cumulative interrelations on top of them. “Waves breaking” and “law breaking,” for instance, can echo and reverberate between each other as they create multiple layers of significance, reinforced by checks and tensions of repetition and variation in a repetitive framework.
At this time, and with this poem, some of the musicality developed by Zukofsky and Duncan came into play, though not in a heavy-handed or overbearing manner. Near repetitions (something that will become more important later) and exact repetition play significant roles. The way “eyes on fire burn” appears with a variation at the beginning, and immediately prepares for a transition, is a good example of the way variation on repetition moves out of the strictures of the unisons’ sonic patterns into a freer cascade of sound.
With this work, Taggart was using several different forms of prosody at once. That doesn’t just mean different conventional devices such as alliteration and assonance, but syncopated line breaks and several types of repetition and near-repetition — and playing those in the arias and unisons against each other. Our most serious correspondence regarding method apparently began in 1974, regarding The Pyramid Is A Pure Crystal. I’m not sure when we arranged to publish Dodeka, but my notes suggest that it was before Taggart completed writing it. Whenever it was, I was thoroughly enthusiastic, and published the book in 1979.
I have mentioned the importance of using the reader or hearer’s memory in relation to repetition in Dodeka. By the time I published the book, I had been working with related principals for a number of years. Though related, and similar in some general properties, our sources and purposes were significantly different. A Book of Questions and Goddesses was one of the places where I tried a number of different approaches to what I sometimes called “acoustic memory” and “shadow memory.” This line of development, and the terminology I used for it, was exploratory, casual, a personal usage, not something I wanted to stress so much that whatever I did became entangled in it, or in an inadequate understanding of it. That meant I could keep it loose and didn’t have to get lost in defining it too rigorously while I was working with it. I used “acoustic memory” for the phenomenon generally, and at times for situations where the reader or hearer would tend to remember phrases, lines, or patterns more precisely, since there wouldn’t be much time between one iteration and another. “Shadow memory” I used for situations in which more time had passed and memory could play different roles. Memory could be less distinct, for instance, or it could make stronger demands on the reader or listener. In Questions and Goddesses, memory had multiple purposes. In prosody plain and simple, I wanted to experiment with different types of acoustic memory for aesthetic purposes, and would have wanted to do so whether they served any other purpose. But in this work, they did serve other purposes: in the first part of the book, sources from the period of the Spanish conquest of Mexico apparently carried memories of previous layers of myth, cultural evolution, and even conquests by other indigenous tribes. I added suggestions of the music of the European conquerors. Acoustic memory did not have to exclusively involve memory within a single poem, but in some instances just might include memory of sound patterns in other poems and other arts or environments. Among the few limitations was the avoidance of confusion of acoustic memory with allusion or quotation. In this book, I kept the source material guiding whatever I did with it, in part to keep the shadows and echoes coming from the right places. Still, I didn’t want to pretend that this was an unalloyed reiteration of the poetry of indigenous Mesoamerica, or anything but a twentieth-century Euro-American response, appreciation, and acknowledgement.
In the first section of the book, I took work by Giovanni Gabrieli as a European musical model to interact with the way I set up repeated indigenous source passages. I used strongly separated repetitions along with the type of call and response arranged for the choir lofts of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. The time it takes to get to a repetition puts as much strain and provides simultaneously as delicate and as large a scale melodic pattern as I could manage with shadow memory from a unit which would take about fourteen minutes to read aloud. This section was made up of three such units, and I hoped that some of the audience would pick up at least a few shadows between the units as well as the shadows within each of them.
A Book of Questions and Goddesses, from Middle American Dialogues, by Karl Young.
The following brief passage from a much simpler and closer pattern seems a good example of use of basic acoustic memory:
the sleeper sleeps
here is the woman
the sleeper sleeps
she has rolled him up in her hand
here is the woman
the sleeper sleeps
she has rolled him up in her hand
here is the woman
I am the sleeper
Questions and Goddesses works with sources from Mesoamerica. In the first example, I was trying to make use of shadow memory in playing off several forms of duality and dualism, worked against the more or less contemporary music of the conquerors. Depending on the audience, and the reading, this could create a sense of ceremony with a melancholy undercurrent or a set of mazes with echoes in their passages. The second example could create a sense of magic as well as suggestions of ritual. In the first section, the ceremonial dimensions suggest enclosure; in the second, repetition and echo can suggest procession, whether to a shrine-like destination or for the purpose of delineating a meaningful area by passing across or around it. Throughout the book, the different forms of repetition, including repetition of phrases and use of shadow memory, gave me perhaps a dozen significant variations to explore.
By the time I published Dodeka, Taggart had moved on to his most expansive use of memory-and-repetition, and combined it with most of the other acoustic techniques he had worked with so far. Most people commenting on this phase of his work identifiedit with the minimalist music of such composers as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. So it should be, on one level. But Taggart hasn’t simply picked up musical ideas without modifying them or working through them from outside. In his work before this, he had been building up patterns of repetition and playing with memory on a smaller scale. Some examples were close to counterparts in Glass and Reich; others weren’t. To me, this is one of the most important characteristics of Taggart’s prosody at this time. The synergy of methods was reaching its maximum. Readers and listeners could clearly identify a type of music in the poems. The kind of “musicality” of Taggart and poets working from a similar background was still there, and interacting with minimalism, but those who had not developed the sense of musicality could still hear something.
A shift in scale or proportion is essential at this stage of development. Moving to the repetition of long phrases with small variations in them, Taggart could build considerably on — and achieve more with — what he had been doing for several years. The use of long lines, instead of individual words, as basic units of composition stimulates as well as makes use of memory. The patterns created by multiple long lines give Taggart opportunities for simultaneous inventions. The long, repetitive phrases are largely what make the sense of musicality more apparent than the musicality in other poets, from Zukofsky to Enslin to Taggart himself before this phase. Their length can also make them easier to remember, or initially seem more memorable, than the shorter lines.
“Inside Out” has received less attention than “Slow Song for Mark Rothko” and “Peace on Earth” — perhaps because it is simpler. This makes it a good poem on which to comment. The first stanza of the first section of the poem appears below:
You have to hear the sound before you play the sound.
You have to hear you have to you have to hear to
hear you have to give you have to give ear you
who have you who have ears you who have ears to
hear you have to give ear to hear the traveler you
have to you have to you have to give ear you who have
ears to hear the traveler who is a bird to
hear the traveler who is a bird who so sings.
Except for the repetition of the word “sound,” the first line may seem plain and formally unremarkable. Still, that repetition of a word, placed in positions that suggest balance and define symmetrical phrases, has a slightly musical, perhaps even haunting, quality. This line will initiate a variation of the cantus firmus technique Taggart used in a number of ways throughout his oeuvre. In this method, the composer reuses parts of a preexisting melody in a new work. In this instance, the words in the first line get used in different orders throughout the stanza.
The pileup of “you have to” phrases which follows in the succeeding lines breaks away from the balanced clarity and simplicity of the first line. If these were simply repeated phrases, they might not be very interesting, though their effect might be easier to identify as insistent or angry or imperative or desperate or obsessive or, well, fill in the blank as you will. But the “repetitions” include variations — and variations of different magnitude. Following the first “You have to hear” the reader moves to a simple “you have to,” with “hear” all the more insistent by its absence in the immediate text — and by its presence in memory. The “to” at the end of the line breaks up a variation in addition to adding one. This time, it seems to call the sense of the phrase and succession of phrases into question: at this point, it is possible to get the sense of something like “you have to hear [in order to __]” — this could even move a notion such as “you have to hear in order to hear” beyond tautology. It can suggest, after all, that you have to “hear” in a mechanical sense numerous times in order to “hear” in such a way as to understand. This is true even in the most rudimentary sense: a child has to hear words repeated before understanding language and words. As the poem progresses, the words “give” and “ear” enter the patterns of repetition, first separately, then joining forces, and doing so as the word “who” enters, and in a few steps, joins the other newly added words. Bythis time, the sense of the repeated phrases has continued to change, and does so again when the word “have” returns with, once more, a change in sense. In addition to shadow memory brought about by near-repetition, there are hints at shadows of words and phrases that may be suggested, but aren’t actually present. This is the case with the words inside the brackets in “you have to hear [in order to ___].”
This pattern of slight changes with each repetition continues through the stanza, through the page built from it, and through the whole poem. “Traveler” may produce a bit of surprise for the reader or hearer, as well as the feeling of appropriateness or understanding, by the revelation that the traveler is a bird, and, finally, a bird that sings. The singing bird can call up a large number of associations, and with them, tones, emotions, memories, symbols, and so forth.
Throughout the poem, the patterns of repetition can work in several ways. The repetition can produce an almost hypnotic absorption, a rapt fascination such as one might feel while completely engaged in a form of music which the listener finds most entrancing. Then again, the slight variations can pull the reader or listener in another direction: expecting and waiting for each change throws particular emphasis on each word, creating suspense, caution, anticipation, and all the colorations associated with such conditions, from irritation to edginess to puzzlement to eagerness to amusement to a sense of thoroughness in working out possibilities. Curiously, the two general responses, absorption with the flow of repetition and watching for change, could be considered almost as opposites — but that’s one of the ways that prosody such as this becomes so dense. Concentrating on the repetitions as repetitions produces a condition of smoothness and serenity, with a sense of time passing easily and perhaps pleasantly as the phrases maintain their unity and the poem seems more a procession of phrases than words. Concentrating on the variations produces a sense of anticipation and curiosity, in which the reader or hearer anticipates variations, individual words rather than phrases become the center of focus and significance, and the irregular stresses on the variants creates a slow and emphatic rhythm rather than a flowing melody. A good deal of the response depends on the reader or hearer’s state of mind, and assumptions or anticipation for this particular reading of the poem. This can change from one reading to another, or even within a single reading. What has been most remarkable to me is that these two types of response can alternate, overlap, and even at times seem close to occurring at the same time.
For me, one of the ways that the cumulative repetitions worked in regard to each other, and cumulatively through the poem, and perhaps in interrelating or balancing the hypnotic effect and the effect of having to be highly attentive to the details of small variations, depends on acoustic memory or shadow memory. As already noted, Taggart and I had been interested in various forms of polyphonic music. I tried some multi-voice performance scores, but generally wasn’t happy with them. Works such as A Book of Questions and Goddesses gave me the opportunity to use shadow memory to suggest polyphonic music. I don’t believe that such devices as counterpoint can be produced by a single vocal line, and have objected to poets using terms such as “counterpoint” either as a metaphor or without understanding the musical term. Shadow memory, however, whether the types I used or the types Taggart used, can suggest polyphony, particularly through forms of memory which include not only memory of previous lines or phrases within the poem, but also the memory of music heard previously, particularly music heard repeatedly over time.
Response to variations adds another layer of depth to Taggart’s acoustic repertoire. In the poems of this period, Taggart occasionally added layers of sound patterning as direct quotes from fully formed musical compositions. Such quotes included a passage from a Tarahumara ritual song, which would be unintelligible to nearly any audience who might hear Taggart read it, but which added greater complexity and resonance to two poems. Taggart could just as easily incorporate a familiar phrase from an R & B song or a word or phrase from a language his audience might consider less esoteric than Tarahumara even though the words could be just as unintelligible. Traditional devices such as alliteration and assonance reinforced the rhythms of the repetitions or slight variations; and even syncopated line breaks could work with comparatively long lines. Contrasts between the lengths of repeated phrases, or nearly repeated phrases, could also add to the textures of poems in this period.
It seemed that at this time Taggart was achieving a prosody as dense and as complex as it could get without moving into multi-voiced performance or song or working with instrumental accompaniment.
And it seems likely that Taggart himself felt he had done as much as he wanted with this kind of density. To borrow, albeit imprecisely, Lettriste terminology, he had reached maximum amplification, was ready to move on to a period of chiseling.
I arranged a reading in Milwaukee for Taggart in the early 1980s. One of the poems he read was Dehiscence. In this poem he seemed to be making major modifications in the methods and purposes of what his friends had started calling his “minimalist” poems, though I wasn’t sure where he was going with the new poem. I’m not certain if he had sent me drafts of Dehiscence before the reading. But I’m confident that hearing him read the poem was a major factor, if not the major factor, in convincing me to publish it as a book.
This poem used many of the techniques of the previous set. But some were growing more dense while others were literally making an exit. In this book, words and phrases don’t always shift as they repeat: as the book progresses, many disappear from successive pages and cease to be heard as the poem moves forward. There are fourteen lines on the first page; the last page has just three lines: the first consisting of one word, the second line containing two large empty spaces, and the third line including empty space before the period at its end. Here’s the complete text of the last page:
night song in heaven and parodise oo-oooo-ooo-oo
letting go one’s hands to clap hands .
The poem quotes the Bo Diddley classic “Who do you love?” and the Tarahumara song from “Peace on Earth.” The poem even includes scatting, whether quoted or written as a type of cadenza. The sound patterns start at least as densely as those in any of the minimalist poems: but now the pattern of diminishing sounds creates the acoustic equivalent of negative space. Negative space could function in several ways: it could create rhythmic patterns somewhat similar to those created by syncopated line breaks; the plotting of pauses or silences could form an almost contrary rhythm; and the negative space could make room for a field where acoustic memory could function in greater freedom than it had in the previous works. In addition to the relatively simple overall pattern of decreasing “material,” the words that dropped out could virtually ask the reader or listener to anticipate those which would follow them into absence as well as to help the reader remember them when they were gone. Since the poem isn’t simply a large mechanical pattern that drops equal parts at regular intervals, but one that at times adds new material, and fully explores the interplay of textures as diverse as the Bo Diddley and Tarahumara songs, the negative space can play an active, almost aggressive, role. I was delighted with the poem when I first heard it, and that had not diminished when I finished producing it as a book in 1983.
Between publishing the two volumes, I also published an audio tape of Taggart reading his first five books as part of my New Fire series. This was apparently the only audio recording of Taggart reading produced for general distribution.
As far as I can determine, Rochelle Ratner and I were the first to write commentary on the poetry exemplified by “Slow Song for Mark Rothko.” Ratner and I worked on our comments together, reading drafts to each other over the telephone in the days before email. Our essays appeared in the 1979 John Taggart issue of Gil Ott’s Paper Air magazine along with the first publication of “Peace on Earth,” and are now online. In this instance, we stumbled into doing something like “triangulation” without planning to. It’s also interesting to note that even though we worked in very different modes in our own poetry, we could discuss our work, not in spite of our differences, but in part because of them. For Ratner and for me, a development in prosody was news — an addition to the “news that stays news.” What poets take as news can be important in itself. However, apart from this kind of news, other things were changing, and by the mid-1980s, I began a period during which I wrote little and published few books.
My last Taggart publication came quite a bit later: after the mid-1990s, I published “Slow Song” and “Inside Out” on the web. In 1994, I began working with what now seems crude HTML coding to build a website that would allow me to try more elaborate forms of triangulation and other means of presentation and interrelation. I could have done a survey or homepage devoted to Taggart, but he was not interested in the web at the time. I was, however, glad to have gotten permission to use these two poems, and put them online along with the essays Ratner and I had done. These entries produced another simple form of triangulation. This was all the Taggart you could find on the web for many years. I like to think that this introduced a fair number of readers to his work who would have missed it otherwise, and who often enough sought out more after the introduction.
After Dehiscence, Taggart moved on to other projects, such as Remaining in Light: Ant Meditations on a Painting by Edward Hopper. And he went on to other poems, generally using variations of the verse forms of the “middle period,” including Dehiscence as the transition to the later work.
What I’ve seen in the work that followed is a continued interest in something resembling what the Lettristes called chiseling — including exploration of varieties of acoustic memory, and several beautiful uses of shadow memory.
There Are Birds includes its share of examples. The long poem “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” includes interesting and profound instances, albeit less insistent, less prominent, and perhaps less commanding — or less a model of invention.
On the third page of the poem, we find these lines:
two windows one window on the left window of her room
what she could see on a clear day she could see north mountain
The “window[s]” in the second line not only set up repetitions and linguistic ambiguities, aided by lack of punctuation, which a reader of Taggart should find familiar enough, but, on a basic and simple level, the “windows” repeat the phrase “two windows” at the beginning of a three-line block just before this one.
Perhaps the most interesting use of shadow memory here takes shape in “north mountain.” In reading this, a reader will probably “hear” and remember a passage from the previous page. The reader may remember the distinctly different color of “blue mountain,” and may also assume a precise repetition of “north mountain.” Actually, “north mountain” is not precisely repeated, and the combination of different types of close repetition is one which will probably seem faint and will turn out to be illusory for readers who check back to the lines on the other side of the leaf. Here is the previous passage:
grew up around here in this valley in the
space between north and south mountain two blue mountains
long waveforms/ridgelines of two blue mountains
Readers may feel the sense of repetition and those who go back to the seemingly repeated passage will probably have different responses, however mild the responses may be in comparison to the complexities of “Peace on Earth” or Dehiscence. In this instance, shadow memory works through an illusion and dislocation. These passages occur within a narrative framework that makes the sense of repetition more moderate for those who hear precise repetition, and makes it more pronounced for those who note the non-repetition. However a reader hears a shadow memory, the time between the elements is longer than the patterns in “Peace on Earth.”
Near the end of There Are Birds, Taggart makes an interesting use of repetition which may be closer to the syncopation of line breaks than the longer arcs of shadow memory. The book ends with two “Cadenzas,” numbered “Cadenza 2” and “Cadenza 3,” in the type face used for the titles in the book. Cadenza 2 consists of a free cascade of stanza-like sets of lines, each made up of highly repetitive clusters. The first, second, and fourth begin with the same line:
there are birds there is birdsong
The only difference between them is that the first begins with a capital T. The repeated lines are made up of two parts which closely resemble each other, and resemble the middle-period works where Taggart used the potential for sounding like repetition or emphasizing variation in similar blocks of sound. The role of the interrelation of number works on other levels, such as: “there are birds” (plural), “there is birdsong” (singular, even if the birds aren’t following the same melodic pattern). Other lines in the cadenza move freely, though containing repetitions internally and at nearly as much distance as a small poem like this allows. The second and ninth lines (both following “there are birds there is birdsong” iterations) begin with the words “unmourning and mournful” but conclude with a different phrase.
Cadenza 3 consists of the line
There are birds
repeated three times, with the only difference, again, being the capitalization of the first letter in the first line. The space between the second and third iteration of the line is about three times that between the first and second. This pattern has been used frequently and by a fair number of poets. But the contrast between the dynamic patterns of just a few words in 2 and the simplicity of 3 is delightful, and does a good job of summarizing and condensing the patterns of repetition and the use of acoustic and shadow memory through an extensive period of exploration.
It’s interesting to note that the form, nature, and use of a “cadenza” have changed considerably through its long history. And changed in the small scale of this article since I noted a cadenza-like pattern in an earlier poem by Taggart as a means of trying something like shadow memory in an essay. How should we understand it in There Are Birds? The term can mean a flourish near the end of a phrase in a solo; or a solo passage, either improvised or specifically notated, played in key positions in a concerto. These basics include many variations. Generally, a cadenza doesn’t conclude a longer work, though it comes, often enough, immediately before a final coda. In There Are Birds, similar and/or identical phrases cross between cadenzas 2 and 3, perhaps suggesting something like syncopation in line breaks, as well as abbreviated versions of near-repetition in stanzas and pages. Each cadenza could be moved to separated positions in earlier parts of the book, as in a concerto. However a reader understands these poems, they suggest multiple possibilities. These may include shadow memory, but even if they don’t, they echo other multi-layer methods derived from musical sources in Taggart’s poetry.
We live in a literary environment where possibilities of poetic form seem to expand at an ever increasing rate, and the number of people writing under the search tag “poetry” grows at a similar scale, but most of the potentials for prosody seem to go unused. It is reassuring, at least to me, to see an unassuming poet whom I published in what seems a different world, continue to evolve new patterns out of ideas such as cadenzas, and quietly ask his readers to read his poems aloud, however quaint that may seem. He apparently understands how much he’s asking; and certainly realizes the kinds of rewards that such reading offers to people working in modes unrelated to his. Is it paradoxical that his request could mean a great deal to people trying to make poetry from wordless computer codes, where simple tweets get rewritten by machines over and over in transit, possibly being bounced off satellites moving in an environment where sound waves can’t exist without a medium to carry them; and that his request could mean just as much to those who may create an optimistic future out of the wreckage of cities like Detroit, in the shadows and memories of musical ideas which evolved and flourished in multi-layered conjunction with a previous human-industrial ecosystem?
1. For extensive reflections on the beginning of the organization, see Water Street Arts Center, Part 1. For brief notices of stages of development, see this Milwaukee Journal article and this excerpt from a local history.
4. Silliman’s Blog, January 7, 2005.
8. For more on Taggart’s working methods, as he described them to me in our correspondence, see my essay on producing John Taggart’s books in this section of Some Volumes of Poetry, and the quotes in Robert Duncan’s introduction to the book.
11. Click here for a reproduction of the second unit.
12. I had also begun work on poems which I latter called Fractals, and which eventually included book-length pieces such as Orange Gold. These could employ as many as a dozen different lines of development presented on the same page or set of pages. They worked with acoustic memory and shadow memory, but they were meant to be read in a manner which virtually forced a different reading each time a piece was vocalized or even read in silence. The constant change in these works may have been a dimension of what could legitimately be considered musical, but still not the kind of musicality Taggart and other poets, and even I myself in other works, had in mind. This is a crucial distinction to make in understanding prosody and in trying to make the most of the freedom the abandonment of traditional patterns made available. See the bio page linked from this essay for more on Fractals, including online publication of some of them.
13. “Inside Out,” along with “Slow Song for Mark Rothko,” are available online at Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry.
15. Rochelle Ratner and Karl Young, “Two Approaches to John Taggart’s ‘Slow Song for Mark Rothko’ and ‘Inside Out,’” John Taggart issue of Paper Air 2, no. 1 (1979).
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.