The epigraph to Stephen Ratcliffe’s long poem Portraits & Repetition is a quotation from Gertrude Stein’s essay of the same title:
I began to wonder at at about this time just what one saw when one looked at anything really looked at anything. Did one see sound, and what was the relation between color and sound, did it make itself by description by a word that meant it or did it make itself by a word in itself.
Steve’s book is a painstaking exploration of or experiment in exactly what Stein might have meant by this. What happens when you look at anything, actually, over a period of time (say, a year and a quarter) every day, carefully, quietly, without many preconceptions as to what that thing is, and then at the same time (at the moment of looking, or just after — or as the moment of looking ) you are writing this, what happens, what do you see? Is there a sort of rhyme between the seen and the heard (what if you hear the sound of a bird at the same moment you are looking at a distant ridgeline in fog), and what about meaning — is ridge something seen, or something heard, is the word you are using at the same time you are seeing already always there in the seeing, and so the sound of the word must be there, in the experience of the seeing? Does the word ridge describe what you are seeing so that the seeing is primary and the word comes later as a label or tag pasted onto it, the experience of seeing (by now it is having seen), or does the word, the faint pre-thought of the word, come simultaneously with — or even before — the perception, so that there’s no perception without the word, and the word and the perception are the same or nearly the same? And then there is the writing of the word, later the reading of it, so that the experience in time is repeated in another time in another mind. A portrait repeated as the portrait as repetition is the portrait. As words are things seen and heard, and things seen and heard merge with words.
Each day for a year and nearly three months — February 9, 1998–May 28, 1999 — Stephen Ratcliffe wrote a ten-line poem that consisted of five couplets, the first line of each couplet always three characters longer than a second line. The words of the couplets appear in their published form in Courier font (which looks like typewriter font), making the words appear oddly old-fashioned or anyway informal and handcrafted in a removed sort of way. The impression is that the words are not printed words in a book, that they are somehow more abstract and at the same time more intimate than words one usually sees in books or in online writing. Spacing between the word is not standard: there is extra space between words (I am not sure whether the extra spacing is uniform throughout), which makes the words oddly abstract: the eye doesn’t follow along quickly as in standard text, where you almost miss the fact that you are reading words, but here the words, in this font, call attention to themselves as words, abstractions, and the spacing seems to function to make the line visually come out to where it should come out, so that each of the poems in the book — 474 pages/poems in all — looks exactly like every other poem, each page visually — relentlessly — the same as every other page.
The title of each poem is the date on which the poem was written (7.4, 7.5, 7.6) but, given in this numerical way, the dates appear after a while as free-standing numerals, abstract numbers. They do not seem to stand for days on earth but rather as a mathematical series: somber, calm, laconic. Within each of the couplets there always appears a word in parenthesis. It might appear in the first or the second line, it might appear toward the beginning of the line or the middle or end, it might be underlined (Steve does not use — and typewriters did not have — italics). Sometimes the parenthetical word is not a word at all but a letter (p). The effect of the parenthetical word is to distance or interrupt whatever is going on in the line. Though there is occasional enjambment, the couplets appear to be independent of one another. None of the first lines is capitalized. There is punctuation, but none of the couplets ends with period. They are all double-spaced, giving each line and each word that much more attention as such.
The couplets seem to include a variety of subject matter that appears again and again as the long poem evolves, poem by poem, poem after poem. Fog over a ridge. A pot of flowers in a glass vase. Stones on a windowsill. Birdsong in the distance. A tobacco plant. Words, language, abstraction, relationship between objects in a visual field, the negative space between them. A couple, a man and a women, in intimate — if indefinite and entirely wordless — relationship. The sea in the distance and close up, swimming in the waves. Houses. People seen at a distance. Sky. Colors, the colors of anything, distinct from one another. It appears sometimes that there is drama or tension occurring, but one can’t be sure. A poem of words — but everything seems quiet, wordless.
Notice how I have used, in the above paragraphs, words like appears, seems, might, as if, sometimes. This is because the overall effect of this almost obsessively precise poem is one of indeterminacy. It is not clear what is being described or what is going on. Despite the luminous clarity of the words and images.
shape of a blue flower in the window (same) which was placed
there by a second person, coming back from somewhere else
small white spider who tries to hide, right (angle) of stalk
below which drops of water are passing from unconcealment
Unconcealment, the Heideggerian word. From alethia, “truth” in Greek, which literally means “unconcealment.” This was Heidegger’s obsession (Ratcliffe’s?): that ordinary life, conventional experience, is concealed, that truth is an uncovering, an allowing of things to come forward to reveal themselves to us, as us, so that we can return to being embedded in the world rather than standing apart from it, as we think we do, and this makes of our experience a kind of aggression, in which we consume the world, as if we were not the world and could make use of it at will, for our purposes. The drops are literally concealed before they form as drops, they are not there at all to the person, to his sight, and then unconcealed when they appear as drops that can be seen as such, and named. Every moment of time’s concealed before it appears — every perception, every thought concealed in the moment before, then appears, then returns to concealment. Writing’s unconcealment. Which person writes what? When words appear and disappear, to reappear later (as reader’s experience), whose words are they? In this poem the words are no one’s, they come from nowhere, though at the same time the locations they depict are exact.
Something happens when you repeat. When you repeat and repeat and repeat. First, there’s the discipline involved. You do it, you repeat, whether you feel in the mood or not. The discipline, the commitment, replaces the sense of the personal, of what you want to be doing or saying. Whatever you want to be doing or saying — or whether or not you have anything you want to do or say — you repeat. There’s a system, a format, a procedure, a passion, a commitment. It, rather than you, carries the process along. Something happens that you would not have intended or desired. This is poetry as practice rather than as expression, or even as communication. It goes beyond the idea of skill or talent. It’s devotional, literally a devotional practice. Devotion to the art of poetry — and even more — or less — than this: devotion to this project, this pattern, this exploration of mind/heart/language. Because this is what emerges when you repeat this way, with this kind of relentless devotion. You find that you go deeper into what you are, how you are, how language is, how the poem is, what seeing, hearing, writing, thinking, being is than you ever would have been able to do if you based what you were doing on your skill intelligence knowledge personality.
I have devoted many years to contemplative practice and see that poetry is or could be the same thing. My own poetry is the same thing: contemplation, poetry as practice. And I feel a kinship to Steve’s project in poetry, which is the same as mine, and also the same as my Buddhist contemplative project. You do it; you simply do it with devotion. It sustains you for its own sake. You don’t write to publish. You publish to write. The writing as practice — as personal sense of meaning, as salvation — is the thing. And the community of friendship and support (not only with one’s contemporaries but beyond time, back through the generations of kindred writers you are in relation with, through your own practice, and forward to the generation of writers/readers now and yet to come). Writing that is both more and less than communication.
The poet is in his house writing. It is silent, he is alone. A lonely quiet place, not in a city, in a small town, on a quiet street, no traffic, no street noise, no one around. Wind outside, ocean in the distance. Clouds. Grey sky. A garden — simple, not lush. The poet has lived in this house many years by now, the same walls, same floor, same view. He is methodical in his habits, arises every morning same time, goes outside, comes back in, writes. Predawn. Sees, hears, thinks, remembers: writes words. Once a word is written it is different from the moment before it is written: the word is different, the experience of the word is different. Life is different.
This difference then falls away, and now there’s an inner impulse, a longing, a sense of grasping or groping, then there is another word written (a word arising to hand and ear, to mind or heart) and the experience of writing, of being about to write, of having written, and then writing again, begins again. The words come out of the quiet. They come out of the long habit of having seen, heard, felt, these same things in a former time that rhymes with this time, as echo. In the process of writing (daily writing, in a strict form, which makes the time seem to be the same yet different on any given day — as any other day, the same and also different in its slight variations, no day repeats any other day, no perception — writing of the same tobacco plant, the same bird sound, of invisible bird, far away, the same sea seen from the same window, the same picture on the same wall, but each day slight variations) each perception, each memory, each word, mixes with every other perception, word, memory, and in the depth of the quiet there’s an unfolding of time and space as the present moment of writing, as the present instance of perception, as sound becomes sight, sight sound, as selfhood, personhood, merges with perception, with memory, with feeling, each perception, object, memory, in relation to every other perception, object, memory, so that the shifting relationships condition the next experiences the next words, and the strict form holds it all in a kind of constantly shifting stasis, just as the form of night/day, life/death, man/woman, word/silence, sky/earth holds the life we are living in place, provides a format for its going on. The closer you look, the more intimate the experience of all this is, the more indecipherable it becomes. The more real it becomes. It is relentless.
upper left corner of table (surface) slanted below the sill,
composition of yellow and pink in various stages of decay
man walking around the corner of the house adjacent to color
above which cloud brushes against the ridge, (assumption)
(part) missing, curve of landscape in the painting analogous
to presence of the person who witnessed it but isn’t here
edge of tobacco plant leaf after which (another) drop falls,
all but illegible ‘scrawl’ that can in fact be deciphered
unidentifiable trills of notes from somewhere beyond cypress
(single) instead of traffic, image of grey sky above city
Outside, the man is walking around a corner of the house; inside, the table is slanted below the sill; in the distance, a cloud brushes against the ridge. Which order of reality, which geographic feeling (domestic scene inside the room; man walking around outside the house; cloud in distant sky) do we focus on, and are they different orders of reality, different spaces, places, experiences, to be carefully distinguished one from the other, so we “know where we are,” or are they in fact one flat (or infinitely deep) plane on which all this takes place simultaneously (in perception, in language, as consciousness)? A person witnesses this, but is no longer here: time has passed, is constantly passing (in the silence you can notice this; with too much noise it happens anyway but you don’t notice), the person of this moment is never here the next, everything passing from concealment to unconcealment then back to concealment simultaneously on one flat or infinitely deep plane. The drops falling from tobacco plant leaves are writing just as much as this that I am doing now is writing or the former writing of Stephen Ratcliffe (by now more than ten years formerly) is writing: they write a meaning, as much as these words write a meaning. The meaning “can in fact be deciphered”? But not explained, perhaps. It can’t be in prose. Its notes are “unidentifiable trills”; its image is “grey,” and the person who witnesses it isn’t here (as you read these words, no longer here).
5.28 (last of 474 poems)
figure across the field against grey background, behind whom
feeling of a pink-white rose fills shape of window (form)
(that) is motion of green leaves on a branch wind approaches
and/or leaves, example imagined before it actually occurs
pale yellow petal falling to a table on the left, which (is)
acoustic action continued as the listener turns toward it
subject standing in front of crack in rock beyond which blue
(position) of noon, angle of thought coming toward viewer
surface of ridge below cloud (c) above which horizontal line
of final action, landscape leaning against plane of glass
“Feeling” of a pink-white rose: not seeing the rose or smelling it: feeling it. Or perhaps no one is feeling it but the rose, in being unconcealed, produces or is a feeling. A figure — which maybe is a person — is there, in the background (rose in foreground?), appearing against a grey backdrop, very quietly, as a shape, a form, rather than a subjectivity, a personality. (Person as part of the field, figure in a landscape.) Leaves on trees moving in the wind (or leaves leaving?) but this isn’t actual — it is imagined by a subject before it happens, and does happen then in another moment (the next moment, the previous?). Inside (we were before this outside? Or are we inside and outside at the same time? Or is there any “we” at all, as reader, as writer, as person, to be anywhere, are “we” no longer, as “we” imagine “ourselves” to be, the central focus of any writing, any thinking, any perceiving, but just that perceiving is going on and “we” or some figure in the landscape, is present, part of the general scene) … inside, a pale yellow petal falls. It is so quiet in here you can hear the petal falling when you turn toward it, or is the falling of the petal contingent on your turning toward it, it falls when and because you turn toward it, your movement having jarred the table so that the petal falls, making a sound, but can you hear the sound? The rock-hard sense of your identity then cracks open: you see blue sky opening through the crack, for the first time you can feel a thought coming toward you from a distance, the thought is a cloud above the ridge, it is seeing itself, the final line of a poem you have been writing for more than a year and now (it suddenly occurs to you, quietly, and without emotion, but with a certainty) the poem is finished, landscape like something flat and contained leaning against the plane of glass out which you are looking, a thick sheaf of pages full of uniform black lines of words on white.
Or, writing through Shakespeare’s sonnets
Different modes of erasure
In recent years, a number of artists and poets have developed the gesture of erasing a text and publishing the result of such erasures on the text. Jen Bervin, a poet and an artist in the United States, recently erased parts of The Niagara Book by W. D. Howells, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Shaler, and others, with tippex allowing some of the words of the original text to appear. In his last show at Galerie Laurent Godin in Paris in 2010, Claude Closky has shown pages of a novel over which each word had been crossed out with black pencil except the article “la” whenever it appeared, thus creating a succession of “la,” which read like a hummed tune. The young artist Jérémie Bennequin has engaged in the process of erasing Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu: he blots out with a rubber the copies of Gallimard’s edition of Proust’s novel.
These different modes and forms of erasure could all be linked to one of their predecessor whose figure looms large: Marcel Broodthaers’s erasure of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, written in 1897 and published in the journal Cosmopolis and subsequently republished posthumously by Gallimard in 1914. The Belgian artist covered the exact lines of the poem with black stripes, thus erasing the text but keeping Mallarmé’s exact typographical layout. Broodthaers subtitled his work “an image,” turning the now unreadable poem into a work of art. As Benjamin Buchloh notes: “The black stripes worked simultaneously as erasures and as a factor of heightened visual impact and spatial presence.”
Three modes of erasure emerge from this quick overview: 1) covering partially or entirely (with stripes or correction fluid) 2) crossing out with pencil 3) rubbing out.
(Re)covering the text in the making
Stephen Ratcliffe’s [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG is a writing through of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which seems to have been partially erased. For each sonnet, only a few words appear where they appeared in Shakespeare’s texts, so that it seems that the rest of Shakespeare’s poem was deleted. They seem to proceed from one of the three modes of erasures given above.
Front cover of [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG.
In fact, the gaunt poems derive from a process of selection which is not explained in a preface, a statement, or a blurb at the back of the book but appears instead on the cover of the book, thus making it possible to recover the making of the text: under the title and against a backdrop of faded purple, the couplet of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 appears in purple, two words singled out by a white stripe. Below the couplet, a white stripe appears like a scratch or a stripe of tippex. The back cover is even more explicit: Shakespeare’s sonnet appears in its entirety, a few words are singled out by white stripes, and the title, taken from line 4, appears clearly, so that instead of covering the text with white stripes, the purple behind the text seems to have been rubbed out: the text is recovered from a promise of disappearance.
Back cover of [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG.
It follows then that Ratcliffe’s poems reverse the modes of erasure described above: while Broodthaers used black stripes to erase Mallarmé’s text to make it even more sculptural on the page, Ratcliffe’s cover — designed by Leslie Scalapino with Ratcliffe’s approval — uses white stripes to select the text and highlight some of Shakespeare’s words. Yet, the text of the book features the selected words only. Unlike Bervin’s, Bennequin’s, or Closky’s projects, the only trace of the palimpsest here lies on the cover, in our memories and in the position of the words on the page.
The erasures that the text seems to present are in fact selections. As he explains, Ratcliffe circled or underlined the words in yellow (on the first page only) and pencil (on subsequent pages), but did not erase the rest, as Bervin did with The Niagara Book or Bennequin with Proust’s novel. In the end, much of the text is missing, but the process is different. Shakespeare’s lines were not covered, erased, or blotted out, as the manuscripts that Ratcliffe sent me demonstrate. They testify to the process and gestures of reading, such as penciling a text as one reads it. In other words, the signs left on his manuscripts signal the very movement of these poems, both as traces of the experience of reading and as readings in the making.
First page of The Sonnets, underlined by Stephen Ratcliffe. Reprinted with kind permission.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 8, as originally underlined by Stephen Ratcliffe. Reprinted with kind permission.
As can be seen on manuscript pages of Shakespeare’s sonnets underlined by Ratcliffe, the process leading to the poem is one which doesn’t entail an abrasive gesture of deletion (Bennequin), or of crossing a text out (Closky), or a gentle albeit definitive and somewhat violent act of applying tippex (Bervin). It should be noted that Jen Bervin’s gestures over textual materials are diverse. While she erased part of the text in Niagara, she partly covered the lines of The Desert with blue thread that she wove on the pages of the eponymous book. Nets, her version of the Shakespearean sonnets, could feel close to Ractliffe’s own version, yet central to the idea of Bervin’s project is that of a palimpsest: Shakespeare’s text is not covered; it is always already there or recovered by Bervin’s manipulations.
In [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG, the text is neither erased, in Broodthaers’s way, nor is it kept, in Bervin’s way. The relation between the cover of the book and the body of texts between the covers suggest that it is one reading of the sonnets, recuperating some of the effects of the sonnets, though such reading can never be substituted for the sonnets themselves. The sonnets have not disappeared; instead their intricacy is revealed in negative — as if in a photographic process — by making manifest what was only latent and not blatant at first view. For instance, the book unveils some of the networks of thematic subtexts as well as some of the phonic and graphic subtleties of the text, pushing the analysis a bit further than the usual points of interest in the rhymes for the eye, anaphoras, well-known figures of speech (polyptota and the like), or alliterations and assonances. One minor example of the highlighting of graphic and phonemic effects of Shakespeare’s sonnets figures in the end of Ratcliffe’s reading of Sonnet 8:
how one string
one, one note
being many, seeming
Ratcliffe makes manifest the graphic and phonemic network of “in” and “ing,” but also the patterns of “one” found in “one,” “none,” and, anagrammatically, in “note.” When comparing this with Shakespeare’s sonnet, one realizes, though, that the poet operated deftly and didn’t for instance systematically emphasize all the occurrences of “one.” Ratcliffe’s reading is one of uncovering because it leaves some of the obvious relations hidden. Moreover, Ratcliffe’s reading weaves other threads, suggesting that millions of other poems are contained in the density of Shakespeare’s text and that we hear all these poems at once, though they are never revealed explicitly. For instance, of the first two lines of the first sonnet Ratcliffe retains only “air” (from “fairest”) and “here” (“thereby”), thus doing away with the principle of selecting etymological roots or lexemes from the original words. Just as “air” is not related etymologically or morphologically to “fair,” “here” is unrelated to “thereby.” Ratcliffe exerts his exercised eye and ear freely through Shakespeare’s poems, creating the conditions for the emergence of a new poem on the page and in the ear. This opening poem of his book is the infinitesimal design of a minimal manifesto, which I reproduce here as a single sentence, though it looks more disjunctive on the page: “air / here / as / memory / eye / -substantial / where / to / now / in / content / waste / be — / and.”
The creation of a sculpture on the page as well as in the air is Ratcliffe’s very poetics, as he has explained in his poem-essay “The Landscape (Body) of the Poem.” Like Broodthaers’s Un coup de dés, Ratcliffe’s deconstruction heightens the architectural construction of the page, yet the sculpture is disjunctive and, paradoxically, in changing the spatial form of the sonnet, it does not annihilate Shakespeare’s word. This is what our close-reading and close-listening of Ratcliffe’s reinterpretation of Sonnet 130 will show.
Reinterpreting Sonnet 130
The rest of this article is an altered version of part of “Living-with Shakespeare?,” an article published last year in Transatlantica, in which I study Harryette Mullen, Jen Bervin, and Stephen Ratcliffe’s readings of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (paragraphs 32 to 36 concern Ratcliffe’s book). Ratcliffe’s reinterpretation of Sonnet 130 reads:
the breath that
With his alteration of Sonnet 130, Ratcliffe refrains from seeing Shakespeare’s sonnet as an unalterable classic fixed in its rigid authority. The lines sculpt the page of [where late the sweet] BIRD SANG, allowing the sound of sense to bloom and drift in the explicit non-linearity of its texture. This text is therefore an elliptic and elided Sonnet 130.
Ratcliffe’s text could very well be an embodiment of Harold Bloom’s claim in The Anxiety of Influence that poetry is dwindling down to its death, since there seems to be virtually nothing left on the page. Has poetry reached such a point of no return that it can only play with a blank page and a few meaningless, unrelated words? And is Shakespeare’s death so self-evident that the contemporary poet effectively kills Shakespeare’s poetry by way of obliteration, i.e. by an operation that empties the meaning of the formal body of the text while alienating its very soul?
Etienne Souriau defines ellipsis as “a lack […] which indicates that one or several words necessary for the perfect regularity of a grammatical construction, have been taken out from a sentence.” Stephen Ratcliffe has done away with most of the texture of Shakespeare’s sonnet, keeping the words where they originally were in the line. This operation, which may be seen as a violent gesture against the sonnets — signaled by the dash at the end of the first line — adds elision to ellipsis. Indeed, in his reading of Sonnet 130, “hairs” (line 4) becomes “air” and “damasked” (line 5) is pared down to “asked.” Moreover, though Ratcliffe’s text keeps the fourteen lines of the original sonnet, its lines are separated by double spacing, which heightens the dispersion-effect of the poem: the sonnet is pulverized on the page.
What remains is precisely the trace and delineation of a minimal sonnet. Ratcliffe’s lines are inheritors of Mallarmé’s poetics of the spatial page, as well as direct contemporaries of Larry Eigner’s sculptural texts: by their rarefaction on the line, some of the words and syllables from Shakespeare’s sonnets are left to their vibration, just as our memory sometimes retains a few words from a text and allows them to echo. With the poetics of vibration, the text concentrates on the “breath” of the “mellifluous” voice Meres saw in Shakespeare’s “pleasing sound” (line 10). Indeed, the web of s, z, and w, the incessant echoes in wai, for instance, seem to turn this page into the mountain in the myth of Echo and Narcissus, where the reader/listener is literally lost as he listens to the sounds and the silence which constitute the space of troubled signification. From the lack of words and syntax, from ellipsis and elision, the poem creates a new texture of manifold collisions and interpolations without being able to come to completion. Questions, denoted by “why” and “asked,” are legion and call for a multivocal reading through which “some […] more” is demanded as a response to the reading process underlying the poem. Taken over by the sounds of the text, one must never forget to think about its texture, i.e. comprehend what is heard and what is seen (“saw,” line 11).
Through the twists and turns of its lines, this poem is also a text that tries to look for and find another type of sentence, one where the word does not have a semantic function only but has almost reached phonetic and graphic autonomy, as is well shown by the graphic recurrence of “ea” in “breath,” “speak” and “pleasing.” These act as rhymes for the eye within the text and bring forward what might have otherwise been overlooked when reading Shakespeare’s text as a whole. Suddenly the words of the text gain an aesthetic quality; in a movement akin to that of concrete poetry — though this poem is not concrete poetry — the poem goes beyond language and almost becomes a drawing. Shakespeare’s variegated complexities resulting from the copious tropes, the profusion of interconnected sounds and generous details, have been done away with. Should we then say that this amounts to killing Shakespeare’s texture or, even worse, his words and “sacred” thoughts, because one cannot face the timeless grandeur of his genius? Or should we look at literature from another mode altogether and see this text as a contingent homage to Shakespeare? Who could argue that if Shakespeare’s poetic arabesques are no longer explicitly apparent in Ratcliffe’s poem, Shakespeare’s text has been done away with? It seems, rather, that one could tentatively take up for Shakespeare’s rereading in the present Jacques Derrida’s words when considering the illusory end of Marxism: when the death of Marxism is being proclaimed, when Marx’s end is forecast, Marx comes back to haunt those who speak of his end. I’d thus say that Ratcliffe’s text is much more a composition-with than a destruction of Shakespeare’s text. And, tellingly, “with” is the last word of Stephen Ratcliffe’s text: “I think / with.” The “I” of Shakespeare’s text comes back in Stephen Ratcliffe’s poem. Yet it is not the “I” of the tombstone, nor is it the “I” of a poet thinking of himself as Shakespeare’s voice. This “I” transforms Shakespeare’s in the present and becomes a polyphonic voice where the speakers of Ratcliffe’s text and of Shakespeare’s happen to be set in a dialogue pointing to the issue integral to contemporary poetry, as well as to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15: that of the unassignable nature of “I.” Reading Ratcliffe’s text means that one travels with Shakespeare’s text, as a companion. Rather than killing or erasing Shakespeare, Ratcliffe’s text expresses the author’s desire to read Shakespeare, provided one reads my statement with Valéry’s anti-idealist stance in mind that “the imagination of desire only sees a corner — a favourable fragment of things … He who sees everything desires nothing and is afraid to move.”
In “Shakespeare’s Memory,” Borges shows that possessing Shakespeare’s memory is purely and simply impossible, because the minute the narrator, or anyone, inherits it, he is a split subject with two memories, where the one blocks the other. The Faustian pact of wishing to know all of Shakespeare and be the voice of Shakespeare’s memory soon leads the main protagonist and narrator to wish to empty himself of “Shakespeare’s memory” and pass it on to someone else. What Ratcliffe’s text suggests is that the desire for Shakespeare does not mean that one should try to speak for Shakespeare, but to try to allow Shakespeare’s text to be reread in the present (“air / here/ […] / now”) through a dialogue with his text, or portions thereof. It prompts us to read Sonnet 130 as an acoustic architecture as well as a drawing. It also asks that we account for the making of our reading.
[These are in-progress notes to a longer text on Ratcliffe’s practice to be published in a book devoted to Shakespeare read by American avant-garde and experimental writers. — VB]
4. Stephen Ratcliffe, [where late the sweet]BIRDS SANG (Oakland: O Books, 1989). See also William Shakespeare, The Sonnets, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (The Arden Shakespeare, 1997). The term “writing through” refers to John Cage, whose texts are of importance to Ratcliffe. Yet Ratcliffe’s writing through is not governed by chance operations.
5. See my analysis of the temporal dimensions of Nets at the very end of my article “Living-with Shakespeare? (Three American Experimental Poets’ Compositions with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130),” Transatlantica 1/2010 (13 October 2010).
7. Shakespeare’s last six lines are: “Mark how one string, sweet husband to another, / Strikes each in each by mutual ordering, / Resembling sire, and child, and happy mother, / Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing: / Whose speechless song being many, seeming one, / Sings this to thee: ‘Thou single wilt prove none.’”
8. First, Ratcliffe is a poet who pays extreme care to sounds. His theory of being attentive to the sounds and the shapes of writing is fully articulated in his book of essays Listening to Reading (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000). Moreover, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Thomas Campion and is fully versed in the language spoken and written by authors and composers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Finally, Ratcliffe published a Shakespeare book (Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet, Counterpath Press, 2009) about minimal off-stage action.
The following is part essay, part proposition, part thinking in motion (provisional, unfinished, disruptive). It is a response to Patrick Durgin’s generous invitation in spring 2010 to address “somatics” in regards to recent writing practices and poetics. Through the following text I take excursions with various contemporaries. These excursions are not meant to be representative by any means (the following is not meant to be a definitive mapping of a field, manifesto, polemic, or ‘last word’) but the continuation of a discourse that has become visible to me in the past few years. All the propositions here are hopefully extendable. To many of them I owe my conversations with the Nonsite Collective — and to Rob Halpern, Eleni Stecopoulos, Amber DiPietra, David Wolach, Taylor Brady, and Robert Kocik in particular. And also to Daria Fain, CAConrad, Dorothea Lasky, Brenda Iijima, David Buuck, and Bhanu Kapil.
I dreamt we were susceptive to language
that care might be agency’s complement
and form never more than condition
passing as body
— Eleni Stecopoulos
Somatic poetics as…
The body foregrounded by the poem’s content.
The body foregrounded by the poem’s form.
The body, as a form, coextensive with a (written) content.
The body, as a form, becoming written.
Or the body as a site of “material,” of information or content for the making of the poem.
The poem quivering “off-page” and on in this relation.
Or the body as a site whereof language becomes cited.
Or language as a site whereof the body becomes seen.
Or the body between non-site and site, a kind of shuddering caesura, a Shabbat or intervention into what is sensed.
Or the poem as that which makes visible the body as a place where cultural, political, social, moral, and economic forces converge and convolute becoming visible in their play.
Wetlands and marshes slow.
But my poems, like phynance
— this accumulation of waste —
I mean this, you and ‘the cranes
Like ships,’ they’re relentless
— targeting flows, pipelines —
Through which the silence, too,
Has slowed, tho it’s still refining
— me, I’m down to prewar levels.
I think of Rob Halpern’s use of the line in many of his poems and essays. Where the line moves, and does not cease to move, because of the use of caesura, and compression, and radical enjambment (often the stanza would seem a container or mould into which Halpern is deliberately fitting the poem’s language and grammar, thereby over/determining its syntax). Also because of the use of hyphens/dashes that start and stop (like in Emily Dickinson, or more recently Leslie Scalapino and Rodrigo Toscano). This is a formal problem that extends cultural content, where movement resists the calcification of (poetic) language as a form of ideation, cultural capital, enunciation (‘voice’). The use of line in Halpern’s work also points back to the body — is therefore deictic. As if to say: how would you say this; how would you express it through your particular body, your metabolism, your breath and movement patterns, your posture? The body becomes scored through a scoring for the breath — for how the poem might become read aloud or in one’s ‘head.’ Halpern, I know, goes to any public reading of his poetry with anxiety, precisely because he doesn’t know how he will read a given poem. The body will determine this, the situation the body is in, the emotional or affective circumstances of the reading.
This poetics of breath obviously goes back to Williams, Creeley, Olson, and other Projective poets. Halpern torques this tradition by providing it with the content of a biopolitics addressed to neoliberalism and the military-industrial complex. This genealogy is also torqued by Halpern’s recognition of a Queer affect infusing his body (of work). Disaster lyric, the name we might assign to Halpern’s and others’ work of the past twenty-some-odd years, produces the poem as a ‘wreck’ of the senses inasmuch as the body is hailed by state apparatuses and other disciplinary matrices. But the lyric is also what actively produces disaster — disaster as that starless condition without plans, destiny, fate. It is in such a wreck, a counter-wreck if you will, that the poem can open towards conditions of possibility for bodies, a general intellect or affective ground for a future multitude or commons. Archaeologies of morning and mourning (moaning?).
Whereof the poem gives rise to phenomenological awareness and action.
Whereof the poem is a tool for attunements, stimmung, proprioception.
Whereof the poem is a site where mind and body would touch and become aware of this touching (chiasmus).
Whereof the poem is a site of mind-body-world in relation, an abstraction or composition of this relation.
Whereof the poem, both on/off page, is constitutive of a forcefield, a mediating play of inequal distributions of power, difference, “disjunctive syntheses” (Gilles Deleuze).
Whereof the poem, both on/off page, is a field of action, a call to activity, a dance of forces, of attractions and aversions, a dance per se by which to coordinate multitude.
In Eleni Stecopoulos’s Armies of Compassion, Stecopoulos writes: “Robert Duncan thought war makes bad use of its soldiers — the synchrony and solidarity of their mass. War destroys the dance in itself” (75).
What if power were put elsewhere, distributed differently?
What if crowds and power (crowds as a form power assumes) were channeled for purposes other than war, profit, exploitation, homeland, knowledge for knowledge’s sake?
Whereof the poem is a site of movement(s).
Whereof the poem is a site of bodies coextensive in movement.
Whereof the poem is a site of discrepant bodies co-constitutive through different (and oftentimes incommensurable) movements.
Whereof the poem is a place where these (potential) movements become organized.
Whereof the poem is a place where these (potential) movements become expressed.
In any discussion of “potential” as it regards aesthetics or writing practices, I am immediately reminded of Robert Kocik’s work, which, if I had to say it was about anything, I would say that it was about potential itself. This comes across in Kocik’s language practice, which seeks through prosodic means to reveal language as a subtle material and, moreover, as a transformative, empowering, and healing force. Kocik has explored language as a site of empowerment and healing through his scores with the choreographer Daria Fain. In Kocik’s scores for Germ (2005), where he employed a chorale round in one of the culminating dances, and the more recent Phoneme Choir (2007–present), which seeks to decreate the English language (to Re-English, as the title of Robert’s score goes) in order to create a new form of commoning based on the proto- (or post-) linguistic phoneme. As I have written elsewhere of Fain’s and Kocik’s Phoneme Choir:
While the Phoneme Choir may have any number of effects, its most basic intention is two-fold. On the one hand, the Phoneme Choir provides a means of healing by drawing upon a confluence of ancient practices, including techniques from East and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and ancient Greece. On the other, it presents a radical assault on the English language in particular, inasmuch as Kocik, and Fain recognize English as a language rooted in militaristic, mercantile and utilitarian endeavors. As Kocik polemicizes throughout much of his recent writing on the English language’s evolution in relation to American democracy: “English has never been the speech of a free people.” If the current economic, ecological and security crises are consequences of the properties and propagation of the English language, by embodying the rudiments of the language and opening it to new inherences the Phoneme Choir provides a ready toolbox to remedy empire.
Coupling gesture with dance, spoken or sung lyric with phonemics, the Phoneme Choir seeks after a future anterior in which futures past may come to be and what will have been is expressed as the now time of current bodies choreographically and chorically. Likewise, in Kocik’s practices as a designer and architect, potential is maximized through the design of a particular piece of furniture (such as the bookcases Kocik has become known for, which rotate and are set on wheels for rearrangement), or, in the case of Kocik’s proposed design for a renovated Feldenkrais Center in Manhattan, through a designed interior. What is striking about the Feldenkrais Center proposal is that, true to Moshé Feldenkrais’s somatic philosophy whereby the Israeli physicist sought to focus on “relationship[s] between movement and thought” in the belief that “increased mental awareness and creativity accompany physical improvements,” the building’s design seeks to cultivate facility in its occupant-users — awareness, perception, corporeal know-how. Robert Kocik: “It’s more than a matter of air quality. ‘Respiration’ is the word I end up with. How can entering the room be like learning how to breathe? Especially for children with motor difficulties … who have been less able to properly develop the muscles of respiration.” Where someone may perceive physical defect, Kocik conceives that “disservice” is “the secret name of God.” Alluding to Kabbalah, and other hermetic spiritual traditions (Ismaili-Shi’ite Gnosticism, too), Kocik seeks disability’s inversion through subtle properties, the angelic potentia that inhere in every body and not just those perceived prejudicially as fitting a model of normativity within the built environment. Kocik, likewise, through his acknowledgement that nearly all of us will become disabled before we die, treats the bodily preemptively for disuse (the loss of functions). What if the normal condition of all bodies was perceived impairment? Would we then have to treat all bodies as being in need of facilitation — the full reaching of their potential among a socius? This is one of the many radical questions posed by Kocik’s work as it relates to a somatic poetics.
Whereof the body becomes a place where perceived weaknesses become strengths, aptitudes, facilities. Robert Kocik: “Are there glorious states without fitness? Undeserving and elated? Gratuitous and undying? Aren’t vulnerability and hunger advantageous too (Athens became a philosophical power only after losing its navy)?”
Whereof the poem acts as the site of this body, or bodies in relation to other bodies.
Whereof the body becomes a site of dis-ability, dis-use, dis-service, dis-combobulation.
Whereof the poem may make visible the conditions of possibility of/in these (somatic) conditions.
Whereof form is “never more than condition / passing as body.”
Whereof the built environment confronts (or confounds) the body, the poem as the site of this confronting/confounding.
Whereof the built environment makes known a body’s difference from other bodies, its disability or disuse — the poem as the site of this.
Whereof these tensions reveal meaning, social or civic truth, the event of this truth of our being with one another inequally through an embodied consciousness.
Whereof the subject or subjects seek to transform the built environment for ethical, political, and/or legal reasons — the poem as the site of this, too.
After the legacy of various Civil Rights movements and subaltern politics, Tobin Siebers recognizes in his book Disability Theory that disabled bodies should be the rule and not the exception (what Jacques Rancière calls the “part of the part”). This is because the disabled body historically, as Siebers shows, represents the subaltern of the subaltern. In societies where racism (and other isms) has flourished, such as our own, the racist has recourse to metaphors of disability — physical or mental weakness, deformity. One challenge of art, then, is to create situations that may bring to the foreground the messianic kernel of disabled bodies, which stand for all of our bodies — are thus an emerging universal subject — inasmuch as they will at some point be in need of care, assistance, and/or challenged by their (social) environment. How, tactically, to frame those differences which become visible through the interactions of bodies with their civic, social, and built settings? How, for instances, by documenting the bureaucratic processes which occupy the time of many disabled, as Amber DiPietra does through a series of works in which she documents her experience being on the phone with various health care providers and civic services for the disabled?
Whereof the body was sufficient, but only seemed to “fall short.”
Whereof it was actually the built environment and the social conditions that made possible the making of this environment which “fell short” — often devastatingly so.
The poem as a site where this could become clear.
The poem as a site where this could become known.
And given the need to address built environments in relation to bodies, how these bodies actually use their environment, environments not always being built with certain bodies in mind. The body becomes a visible response, it enters into an involuntary proceduralism, it is seized by constraint just by being, just by acting within the world — can the poem be a site for this visible response? Amber DiPietra embodies (literally) such a condition of writing extended from bodily constraint, involuntary procedure, and seizure within the circumstances of the built environment, where such circumstances necessitate new subjects and forms:
How to work with and through the body without dragging the whole history of this body into every line? What if to bring my body into the writing means to experience the same limitations and rigidity I experience in the body outside of writing? How to bend forward from a number of small vertebral fusions the back of me has enacted against gravity, against the better judgment of flow. Bend forward toward a new form in writing. Allow yourself the spacious start of the minuscule, to begin just by thinking of bending and of form. Just by being with bending.
And given the desire for “remediation,” “maintenance,” regulation of toxicity, of electro-magnetism and pollution — the sheer speed and invisibility of “our” processes.
Given the need for tactical magic, for intervention in the ways space exists and the ways that it is made, in spatial practices.
Given that there are chemicals we live among, and to live among them can mean death and disease to anyone.
Abby Block performs in PARK: PDX in 2011. Choreography and direction by Kathy Westwater; text and vocal concept by Jennifer Scappettone. Photo by Marina Zamalin.
This past winter I was able to attend Kathy Westwater’s and Jennifer Scappettone’s performance of PARK (2010) at Dance Theater Workshop in Manhattan, a dance work-cum-“pop-up opera” that features choreography by Westwater and collage-text by Scappettone. What I most liked about the performance were the ways Westwater and Scappettone were obviously working collaboratively with their performers to discover a language coeval between dance and poetry in order to embody a response to toxified landscape, namely a series of Superfund sites around Chicago and New York where Scappettone had conducted her fieldwork. What would it mean to sing, cry, speak, intone the toxins out of “us”? (At a culminating moment of the dance performance the performers rolled a Mylar tarp over the heads of themselves and the audience, singing to us, chanting and whispering.) What does it mean to work between site (Superfund) and non-site (dance studio) to locate a proper form of expression in order to perform remediation — remediation of the dancer-intoner’s body in relation to landscape? I keep thinking that the word “remediation” is not adequate, that it should be in quotes or under erasure (as it is on one of the first pages of David Buuck’s Buried Treasure Island pamphlet ). Somatics, like experimental art and poetry, is about finding the right words from the ground up, in relation to embodied conditions. But what if this ground has been contaminated? How does one find ground — a foothold, a purchase? It is as if the whole world need be remade. The body, and language as a body, becomes the beginning of the world again. A ritual of decreation and recreation, of (world) unmaking and remaking.
Development of PARK in 2010. Choreography and direction by Kathy Westwater, art direction by Seung Jae Lee, poetry and text scores by Jennifer Scappettone. Photo by Anja Hitzenberger.
And given that there are things in the air and underground that we can’t see.
Given that the legibility of so many production processes are withdrawn from our attention, and that they are intended to be withdrawn.
That these things too are legislated, committed, coerced, consented to.
That both our coercion and consent often remain unrecognized, though they can mean our demise and the demise of others.
Any notion of “somatics” — a term coined in the 1970s around contemporary dance circles alluding to various movement-based healing techniques and techniques for exploring the body’s physical processes — cannot be divorced from environment. In July of 2007, I gave my first of three workshops with the Nonsite Collective in the home of Jocelyn Saidenberg. Under discussion were two texts, one by Jalal Toufic on his concept of the “surpassing disaster,” the other by Rebecca Solnit on gold mining practices in Nevada. In Solnit’s essay, from her collection Storming the Gates of Paradise, she shows us that the commodity value of the gold in Nevada is not worth the use value of the water used to mine the gold. In another startling admission, Solnit cites the extraordinary damage caused by mining-techniques to the water tables beneath the Nevada and other mining sites. Disaster was once a thing we could see, but this is no longer the case. I am reminded here of Muriel Rukeyser’s brilliant documentary poem, US 1, written for the miners stricken with silicosis after the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster in Gauley Bridge, VA, who Rukeyser encountered working for the WPA as a photographer in her early 1920s. In US 1, the deadly (and extremely painful) disease silicosis flickers between a “thing” that can be seen through prosthetic-medical means (X-rays) and one retreating from our vision — tearing away at the lungs in secret. However devastating industrial mining practices are, they at least tend to be somewhat local, if by local we are talking about hundreds of miles. A new challenge facing Ecoartists from here on out will be confronting whole ecological systems without national, let alone local, boundaries. These systems resist visibility too as they reside in the air, oceans, and soil — our most basic elements. Using art and writing as a “legal material” (Rob Halpern), Bay Area-based artist Amy Balkin forages ways to confront the bureaucratic apparatuses which make possible the continued expropriation of our elemental commons — the rights of all to clean water, air, soil, etc. She does so specifically in Public Smog (2006–present), which not only creates a clean air commons miles above the atmosphere through the purchase of carbon emissions credits, but also records phone calls with UNESCO officials whereby Balkin would attempt to preserve the atmosphere as a World Heritage “preservation site.” Through Balkin’s documentation of these phone calls one realizes the many legal aporias confronting environmental activists as they face crises beyond any single national territory or legislative entity.
And given the exploited body, the stateless body, the non-“normative” body, the body detained.
Given the pharmaceutical body, the armored body, the body injured in conflicts one will never see (because they are not represented, not processed for the oversaturated attention).
Given the perceived “monstrous,” the odd, the queer — those bodies which resist categorization, discursus, registration.
Given disarticulation, given the loss of language(s), given torture and given harm — the body under constant threat of harm.
Given the different forms articulation can assume — through a cry for instance?
Bhanu Kapil in a spring 2011 performance at Dikeou Gallery, Denver, for Titmouse Release Party: "A scene from [for] Ban."
In Bhanu Kapil’s work, I am reminded of the body’s suffering and its virtual transcendence. Perhaps no other writer of our moment has so adequately forged a language for the body in pain, and made such a commitment to this body. The commitment is in the grammar, which is a grammar of the liminal — of borders, interstices, hybridity. Periods punctuate the borders running-through the (hum)animal soul of Kapil’s prose. In Kapil’s first book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (2001), she provides a questionnaire to women of Indian diaspora. This questionnaire concerns the state of the women’s lives, their relationship to men, the threats of violence they feel within their society. What comes out is a beautiful prose poem hardly reflective of the private and brutal responses one must expect would have been generated by the questionnaire.
In Kapil’s second book, Incubation: a Space for Monsters (2006), Kapil writes her autobiography through the figure of Laloo, a carnival “freak,” interposing Laloo with various other monster and cyborg personae. The book is charming, yet terrifying if you read behind the lines. Immigration haunts it. So does assimilation. Wherein to pass as “human” is to be properly assimilated. Incubation: a Space for Monsters ends with a road trip to the United States. This section of the book is basically a guide for hitchhiking women, which includes ways to prepare for the threat of rape on the road. Kapil’s most recent books Water Damage_ _ _ _: a map of three black days (2007), Humanimal: a Project for Future Children (2010), and Schizophrene (forthcoming 2011) commemorate the traumatic upbringings of her parents who in the case of her mother is a survivor of the border dispute of 1947 between Pakistan and India that forced millions of Pakistanis and Indians to migrate. In the wake of this forced immigration Kapil’s mother suffers from schizophrenia. Kapil’s father, who was ravished by famine as a child in India, is commemorated in Humanimal, a book documenting the “wolf-children” Amala and Kamala discovered in Bengal in 1920. At the heart of this work is an admission of guilt (of sorts), or at least of complicity. Attempts were made by doctors to “normalize” the bodies of Amala and Kamala after the transformation of their muscle tissue while wandering among their wolf pack. In Kapil’s line of work (besides being a professor of writing at the Naropa Institute and Goddard College, she is also a bodyworker), she applies Rolfing techniques, a method of bodywork in which the bodyworker begins by “breaking down” muscle tissue then reforming it. What, Kapil’s work seems to beg, are the ethics of bodywork techniques such as Rolfing in relation to other medical and nonmedical procedures? Who gets to put the “monstrous” body “back together”? Who says what or who is monstrous? How do metaphors of the inhuman or liminally human affect how we encounter the human-animal other?
And given the fact of a missing sense, another becoming amplified.
And given this discourse of the senses, this becoming synaesthesiac, these inverse synaesthesias that also make up common sense.
Given all the pain, given the fact that our deaths cannot even be shared.
Given the bodies discourse has made.
Given what cannot be contained by discourse.
And given that there are subjects.
Given that there is sometimes no subject.
Given all of the ways that bodies are subjected.
Perhaps somatic poetics becomes the promise of a different sovereignty — a “different domination” (John Taggart). A domination redistributing dominion, diadem, fundamental governmentability.
Perhaps somatic poetics becomes a mobile commons — a commons of what cannot always be shared.
Perhaps somatic poetics becomes a site of our non-appropriation and our expropriation.
It forces us, in other words, to assume a certain complicity with which all bodies are charged.
To make “work” from a position or multiple positions of culpability.
The poem has not yet determined what a body can do. Somatics? The poem cites the body’s (lack of) determination within a sociopolitical field. In this way is it both constructive and deconstructive. Feeling (affectivity) can over-/in-determine any sense of the thing (poem) having been constructed or it having been taken apart. Lyric (what has traditionally been called lyric) is the typical mode of this over- or in-determination.
Composition demonstrates (it exposits) but it is also a site where states of feeling, awarenesses, “being,” and consciousness are undergone. Like a patient (or Orpheus) goes under. Eleni Stecopoulos: “Orpheus had to climb down the base of his skull because the message wasn’t getting through.”
To lie, in a white space, terrified, following the push of liquids through clear channels, though skins and membranes. To feel terrified, lying, pushing to follow the liquids though membranes and skins into clear channels. To feel the clarity of channels liquefying terror’s push right through the skin. To feel no skin, actively. To embrace a membrane between feeling and articulation.
The poem is a site of undergoing, the body undergoing something, a process internally or externally mediated by language, a process that extends from environment, from language use in the (built) environment. As in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, one becomes animal, environment, historical personage (Nietzsche’s every name in history is I), chemical state: they do not merely represent it (the psychoanalytic fallacy). Hannah Weiner is thus “our” contemporary test for undergoing because the journals record and compose the act of undergoing, of being under (as a patient). In Spoke (1984), Weiner jokes about Orpheus — one of her (three?) voices being “subscripted.”
Amber DiPietra: “The body becomes the problem.” Weiner’s body becomes her problem in the sense that she must overcome, or merely deal with, somatic exigencies — exigencies of her neural-chemical becoming — through an aesthetic means. Clairvoyant journalism is thus born from oversensitivity in Weiner’s journal The Fast (1992). Undergoing writing (a somatic poetics?) is not “better” or more “authentic” than other kinds of writing or art. Just different. Coming from a different place/set of concerns/needs (like Kafka’s use of the journal, whereof Blanchot said that Kafka wrote in a journal to observe who he was when he was not writing.)
Can one undergo through the poem the conditions of a landscape, geographical or social location, intersubjective formation, or sociopolitical incommensurability? To what extent could this undergoing produce a different set of affective or intersubjective coordinates, or simply make visible the conditions that made the work of art/poem possible or necessary? In Rachel Zolf’s Neighbour Procedure (2010), she says that the book is an attempt to compose a series of “mad affects.” What about the mad affects of places? Relations? Histories of relation? The body is an extension of places and beings in ‘space-time.’ Susan Howe: “Once I was driving to Buffalo alone, moving up there for the winter to teach. It was me and my car and the mountains. I had a tape of Articulations from a reading I had done, and I thought I would turn it on as I was passing the place near where Hope [Atherton] had been wandering after the raid — and it was a wonderful feeling because the sounds seemed to be pieces still in the air there. I was returning them home as I drove away from home.” The body both mediated by and mediating the (mad) affect of such places. Could Paterson have been written by just any body? Could Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead,” or The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson, or “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” by Wallace Stevens? Could (more recently) C. S. Giscombe’s Giscombe Road or Bhanu Kapil’s post-national oeuvre?
Since in any place inhere the things that have been there, and that (sometimes literally) remain there through its “half-lives” (that remain undead, in other words). And since any body is not just a body, which is to say, never only a finite membrane or container but a complex extension, a bundle of what it has encountered, consumed, sensed, felt, and touched — the body is many different places at once (in neoliberal terms, it has “gone global”). Place is, then, extended by many different bodies at once (the logic of virus, outbreak, contamination, plague). Somatics is a site — the aesthetic site — where we undergo these places. The existences of these places within the body become framed, but also possibly moved (expressed, transformed, en route). “Remediation” (the shibboleth for any number of public and corporate earthworks projects post-disaster) then not only occurs within a particular geography or topology but in or at the body as a site coextensive with such places.
CAConrad prepares to eat a piece of gemstone (rhodonite) as part of his soma(tic) poetry exercises.
The recognition I am describing happens repeatedly through CAConrad’s (Soma)tic Exercises, where so many of the exercises instruct the reader/writer/user to attend a particular place in relation to one’s own somatic condition, habit, and design. This recognition — the recognition that the body enfolds multiple places conterminously — also occurs in David Buuck’s site-specific field investigations and performances, and particularly in his 2008 work, Buried Treasure Island. In his pamphlet for Buried Treasure Island, Buuck surveys an “archeology of the future.” Through the excavation of San Francisco’s Treasure Island — once a world’s fair ground, then a military base, now a base of operation for any number of clandestine experiments and housing projects — Buuck explores futures past — not so much what “could have been” as what remains charged with messianic potentials.
The knight’s move here is to imagine the future-past from its own vantage point, as if reenacting the battles yet to come. Thus strange verb tenses must be enacted: these are those things that will have had to have been, that will have had to yet occur in order for such performatives to imagine themselves into being today. Thus the body becomes the vessel for acts of conceptual theater, site-specific performances that aim to have had liberated other futures from the husks of the present.
Buuck also explores the landscape of Treasure Island as a site in need of remediation — re-use, re-expropriation, “respiracy.” “Pre-enactments of re-mediation work aim to rehearse the autonomous reclamation of land use as its ‘respiracy’ — a term that will have had to have been concocted to somehow capture the vernacular practice of ‘respiratory piracy,’ by which air quality and environmental inequality are confronted head-on by those affected populations and their partisans” (16). In a particularly dramatic gesture during Buuck’s slideshow performance of Buried Treasure Island for the Manhattan-based event series “Peace on A” in June of 2008, Buuck consumed toxic dirt samples taken from Treasure Island, doing so in homage to CAConrad, whose book (Soma)tic Midge had appeared that spring with Faux Press and which Buuck quotes in the pamphlet for Buried Treasure Island. Through Buuck’s performance the body itself became a site for extended remediation; it also became a visible symbol that the soma and the places we move through are inextricably woven — that to poison the environment is to pose a threat to ourselves, the sovereignties and connatuses (co-births) of our singular somas. Coupled with (future) pirate songs and an extemporized lecture (à la Smithson’s snickering 1969 slide-show talk, Hotel Palenque) Buuck’s Buried Treasure Island performances present yet another expression of a somatic poetics — somewhere between improv, lecture, recital, Vaudeville act, and tactical performance art.
Whereof a stutter in this wreck called us
Whereof a wreck that is our bodily condition — any embodied consciousness — every body in history being I
Whereof the consequences of this were felt and unmade
To be human and animal and unmourned — dis/possessed
To imbibe the harm that involves us and is also a condition taking form
To transform this condition
To ground the social on this ground
We have taken to our literal mouths, into our literal mouths, in a literal air
A somatic poetics perhaps …
3. Thom Donovan, “Choir Praxis: On Daria Fain’s and Robert Kocik’s Phoneme Choir Movement Research Festival, Judson Memorial Church, May 4, 2009,” The Brooklyn Rail, April 2009.
8. Amber DiPietra, “My Notebook Has a Rigid Spine or How to Operate the Body in Writing” (paper, Poetics and Healing Symposium, Meridian Gallery, San Francisco, CA, May 9, 2009).
9. For a helpful tracing of this term see Martha Eddy, “A Brief History of Somatic Practices and Dance: Historical Development of the Field of Somatic Education and its Relationship to Dance,” Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices 1, no. 1 (2009). Thanks to Patrick Durgin for drawing my attention to and supplying me with a copy of this article.
10. Quoted from the entry for “patiency” at Nonsite Collective’s website.
12. Curiously, Robert Duncan writes that “The myth or pattern of elements in the story is a melody of events in which the imprint of a knowledge — knowledge, here, in the sense of a thing undergone — enters the generative memory and the history of man takes on tenor,” echoing, perhaps, my own sense that to undergo is to radicalize relationship through a logic of incorporation, albeit decentered or displaced. Qtd. in Hank Lazar, “The Poetry of Myth: The Scene of Writing, Thinking as Such,” Mythosphere 1, no. 4: 411.
13. For example, in a recent (Soma)tic Exercise devoted to Hannah Weiner, Conrad instructs the user on how to astral travel during an MRI in the following (place-dependent) way: “For the week leading up to your MRI, each time you enter your chosen space STOP at the entrance, and take a long look around. Then close your eyes and imagine what you saw. Open your eyes and notice what you missed when imagining what you saw, for it is the missing things you will incorporate each time you repeat this exercise until you have gathered the entire space in your mind.” See CAConrad, “Radiant Elvis MRI,” (Soma)tic Poetry Exercises blog, February 6, 2010.
Bryher, H.D., and 'curating' modernism
As the child of the wealthiest man in Britain, Bryher (born Annie Winifred Ellerman on September 2, 1894) occupied a unique position within the first half of the twentieth century. Her own success as a writer came later in life — her historical novels and memoirs were bestsellers in the years following World War II — but early on she used her inherited wealth to support a range of career paths: editor, publisher, and patron. Bryher early on established herself as an ardent and vocal supporter of both the creative and practical sides of literary production. She provided financial assistance to struggling poets; subsidized publishing endeavors like Robert McAlmon’s Contact Editions, Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, and Harriet Shaw Weaver’s Egoist Press (with which she also collaborated as a contributing editor); established little magazines and presses for emerging artists and her own work; and drew on her longstanding interest in education to produce a large body of pedagogically motivated essays, reviews, and treatises on modern film, poetry, and art. Moreover, she demonstrated a willingness to challenge and transcend traditional boundaries between artistic genres — primarily literature and film — as well as those separating publisher, patron, editor, and artist.
Perhaps ironically, it is the breadth of Bryher’s contributions to the development not only of modernism as an artistic movement, but also of an audience receptive to its aesthetic and political ramifications, that has caused her to be overlooked as an artist in her own right. Jayne Marek has shown that Bryher became, in effect, an “invisible woman” through her associations with figures who were either more dynamically invested in their own personae, or who became the subjects of biographies dedicated to the construction of a mythic portrait of the era. And indeed, Bryher can be hard to locate within primary accounts of her time, in part because she appears to have been so willing to recede into the background, silencing herself in ways that are themselves culturally significant. It is possible to read this silence in part through her unusual personal life, which encompassed a lifelong relationship with H.D. and two marriages of convenience to bisexual men, as well as an ardent conviction that she should have been born a boy. This personal and professional reticence has also, unfortunately, resulted in a critical invisibility that is only now being undone.
Bryher’s marriage to, and fiscal support of, Robert McAlmon — editor/publisher of Contact Editions and, with William Carlos Williams, Contact magazine — often bears the brunt of this invisibility. McAlmon’s memoirs appeared thirty years earlier than Bryher’s, and his champions were dedicated to ensuring his place within the literary mythos surrounding the writers of Paris in the 1920s. Later narratives — including The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (published by New Directions in 1967), Kay Boyle’s 1968 revision of McAlmon’s Being Geniuses Together, Barbara Guest’s 1985 biography of H.D., Herself Defined, and even Bryher’s own The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoirs (1962) — as well as academic monographs and surveys, have historically missed Bryher’s reach into nearly every aspect of transatlantic modernist literary and cinematic production. To be fair, the mundanities of literary production — bookkeeping, publicity, education, audience cultivation — that make the romance of “genius” possible, and which Bryher performed and represented, are often not the most compelling elements of literary history. But they are crucial nonetheless.
Bryher’s role in ensuring the viability of modernist writers and artists has begun to be recovered, thanks to scholars such as Marek, Susan McCabe, Charlotte Mandel, and others. Their research begins to excavate the silences, illuminating the Foucauldian dictate that “There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.” While critics like Lawrence Rainey have dismissed Bryher’s literary efforts as, at best, solipsistic — calling Brendin Press, her last publishing house, H.D.’s “own privately subsidized firm” — Marek instead sees Bryher and H.D.’s partnership, in its many and shifting forms, as instrumental to “helping to push forward the frontiers of twentieth-century thought.” Likewise, McCabe shows how Bryher’s archives reveal that “the unusual extent of disparagement, neglect, and discounting of Bryher has more to do with her transgressive ‘husband’ role in curating modernism than with her actual character.” Bryher’s relationships with the artists she admired did cross heteronormative cultural boundaries, in ways unremarked upon yet remarkable. She independently controlled a level of wealth normally reserved for men, and adopted a traditionally “masculine” role in literary production, taking charge of the business side of the presses and magazines she worked with even as she cultivated certain artists and educated the public about them. Yet Bryher was remarkably quiet about her wealth — it garners only a sideways mention in her account of her engagement to Robert McAlmon and is, at best, implicit throughout the rest of her memoirs.
Bryher’s contribution to modern art, especially that most underappreciated element of artistic success — what McCabe terms “curating,” or the cultivation of material coupled with the overt attempt to engage a willing audience with it — is best understood by examining her publishing and editing career in toto, as deeply influenced by her personal idiosyncrasies and also marked by both profound silences and moments of astonishing revelation and action. This occurs most clearly when Bryher blurred the boundaries between her personal relationships and her public/professional endeavors, a pattern that can be seen as partially responsible for the ways in which her work has been dismissed as paternal or solipsistic. Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s early work on H.D. represents an important first step toward acknowledging Bryher’s presence within H.D. scholarship and, more broadly, an emergent, alternate modernism that resisted the dominant, masculine ethos of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Blau DuPlessis credits Bryher with helping to develop parts of the poet’s mercurial sexual persona, wondering in a 1979 article if “Perhaps [H.D.] felt guilty to be so happily involved in a world made up of women exclusively — she, her daughter Perdita, and Bryher appear as a kind of triple goddess in some of her late dreams — and had to compensate by torturing herself with thralldom to men.” Twenty years later, DuPlessis notes that Bryher’s presence was an essential part of H.D.’s “complex relational life,” suggesting her centrality within H.D.’s career as a whole. Recovering Bryher-as-muse (of a sort) was a crucial beginning to recovering the complicated nature of a poet like H.D., yet because H.D. is the focus, Bryher’s presence is primarily that of helpmeet or “midwife” of the poet’s genius, rather than an active and influential player herself. Building on this essential work, I want to suggest an expanded vision of the world that these women created together, and its ramifications for the dynamic literary landscape of the early twentieth century.
Bryher’s contributions have been historically difficult to parse in part because she herself is so mercurial, shifting from intimate to public roles with the same people, often within the same circumstances. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner identify the critical/social impulse to find “a structural differentiation of ‘personal life’ from work, politics, and the public sphere” as distinctly heteronormative, an attempt to reinscribe “public” heterosexuality onto queer relationships. They argue that “[T]he normativity of heterosexual culture links intimacy only to the institutions of personal life, making them privileged institutions of social reproduction, the accumulation and transfer of capital, and self-development.” While much of the early feminist recovery work honored the primacy of the H.D.-Bryher relationship (or her ties with other women and men), in so doing it often glosses the influence she had upon the readers who supported the writers she loved. Bryher transgressed the distinction between professional and personal boundaries fairly consistently, bringing intimates into her public sphere and bestowing professional favors on close friends. Only by taking seriously the delicate balancing act between privacy and revelation, personal life and professional life, that Bryher maintained can we begin to understand how she so profoundly affected the international reception of modernism in the years following World War I.
Bryher’s penchant for transgression was apparent from the start: The protagonist of her early novel, Two Selves (1923), wrestles with the certainty that she was meant to be a boy. This outcast sensibility informed her interest in art as a revolutionary mode of expression and social change, one that she enacted specifically by publishing three novels before her twenty-ninth birthday. It also provides insight into her collaboration with McAlmon for Contact Editions, and the energy and momentum that Bryher inspired in him. McAlmon’s early letters to Bryher revel in their platonic relationship and shared aesthetic sensibility. In an typical missive from 1921, he questions her taste in poets, in this case Marianne Moore, and then enthusiastically compliments her:
[Marianne Moore] will matter as a piquant idea — a closeted intellect I think …. I can’t know whether people like that have any urgent life in them, or not …. [handwritten on margin:] As Mrs North said “You’ll be a great poet.” You are now one of about 5 I know about who do not make a mannered impression of writing. That’s real achievement.
Such conversation repeats throughout his correspondence, mixing critical debate with admiration for her talent, and gratitude for her support. He writes, “O I’m liking myself these days Bryher — and I’m doing writing I’d not have done for years, perhaps never, if I had stayed in that damned New York. You’re to thank for that,” suggesting that he found liberating the fact that the marriage was, in his own words, “legal only, unromantic, and strictly an agreement.” Indeed, these limitations perhaps enabled a more equal exchange of ideas, one unhindered by the traditional social roles Bryher challenged, and ultimately rejected, throughout her life.
The “invisibility” that Marek notes as symptomatic in early treatment of Bryher indicates a pattern in Bryher’s own life that first surfaced in her personal relationships, from as far back as childhood, and revealed itself publicly almost as soon as she entered society, continuing throughout her considerable career. It also manifests in early critical work, downplaying Bryher’s impact by inadvertently concealing ways of understanding the role of people like her, who were able to exploit their own resources in service to art, by working outside the boundaries of traditional partnerships.
“You want something in poetry and in life that I want too”
By the time she became involved in Contact Publishing, Bryher had already established her engagement with the burgeoning literary and artistic movements of the 1910s. Her interest in poetry, and the possibilities of language and art, began long before her involvement with McAlmon — though it was, even early on, inextricably bound up with her personal development and sense of identity. A devoted reader, she recalls in The Heart to Artemis her discovery of the French symbolist poet, Stéphane Mallarmé, and simultaneous introduction to the transatlantic modern poets:
I do not know how I should have lived if it had not been for one of those little magazines that, as Gertrude Stein was fond of quoting, ‘have died to make verse free.’ It was Poetry and Drama, edited by Harold Monro .… F. S. Flint had written articles on modern French poetry and I found in them for the first time the magic word ‘Mallarmé.’
From there, she found Pound’s seminal Des Imagistes, which led her to Amy Lowell and, ultimately, H.D., Harriet Shaw Weaver, and Marianne Moore. Fifty-three years after the event, Bryher wrote of the appeal that vers libre and imagism held for a fifteen-year-old would-be poet on the brink of self-revelation and artistic inspiration: “I was discontented with traditional forms but this was new …. [The artist] must be in advance of his time and as to know is to be outcast from the world, why should he expect recognition?” In this moment, she establishes the themes that resurfaced throughout her life, most especially the ways in which feeling “outcast from the world” fed the literary and artistic innovation of an entire movement. Bryher engages the trope of outsider-as-visionary repeatedly in her memoirs, embracing the overlap between personal identity, political engagement, and professional/artistic development. Indeed, this tension was central to her unusual marital-business arrangements, and to her willingness to transgress the standard editorial role in relation to the artists she supported.
Bryher’s editorial relationship with Egoist Press began in 1918 — three years before her marriage to McAlmon — when H.D. introduced her to Harriet Shaw Weaver. She went on to write reviews for The Egoist magazine, and Weaver invited her to translate Antipater of Sidon’s “Six Sea Poems” for The Poets’ Translation Series. H.D. introduced her to Marianne Moore as well, and following her 1921 marriage to McAlmon, Bryher worked with Weaver to publish both Marianne Moore’s Poems and H.D.’s Hymen. The books were printed in a limited edition of 300, the entirety of which Bryher bought and then left with Weaver to resell. While this might seem a baffling action, Bryher’s sponsorship of these two titles represented a crucial element of each poet’s initial reception.
In her analysis of the professional relationship between Marianne Moore and T. S. Eliot, Sheila Kineke defines “literary sponsorship” as a useful framework for understanding modernist patronage and publication, particularly among women. She notes multiple definitions of the term “sponsorship” within the Oxford English Dictionary, including the commercial aspect (“one who pays or contributes towards, the cost of a broadcast programme or other spectacle … in return for commercial advertisement”) and the “agonistic” (“one who stood surety for the appearance and good faith of either party in a trial by combat.”) Commercially, Bryher stood to gain from the success of Poems and Hymen — if not financially, then by a more widespread recognition of artists she championed and, secondarily, acknowledgement of her own abilities as editor. Thus what might be cast as an effort to fetishize or cloister certain authors can also be understood as a way to guarantee audience. Bryher’s willingness to contribute to the publication of Poems and Hymen, and her decision to “stand surety” for their success, allowed Egoist Press to keep costs low for potential buyers. Through Bryher’s sponsorship, the books quite literally paid for themselves. While any poet might hope that her work would be organically discovered, read, and celebrated, the realities of the publishing world in the early twentieth century — particularly for practitioners of a new and daring poetics — often necessitated subsidization.
It matters, as well, that H.D. and Moore were among the first two poets Bryher “published.” Her ardent support of H.D. was perhaps to be expected: Their personal relationship grew out of Bryher’s admiration for H.D.’s poetry, and by the time Hymen was published, Bryher had nursed H.D. through a nearly fatal bout of flu and the birth of her daughter Perdita. With Moore, the personal/professional relationship was more complicated. Bryher and H.D. were Moore’s earliest champions, helping bring her work to the attention of critical supporters like Eliot, Williams, and McAlmon. While H.D. participated fully in the production of Hymen, Bryher’s friendship with Moore empowered the former to overrule the latter’s resistance to publication. Accounts of this dispute range from the resentful to the conspiratorial, but Elizabeth Gregory offers perhaps the most balanced assessment, arguing that Moore’s resistance grew out of an “overall critique of the literary superstructure that her work effects.” Further, she claims that the publication of Poems engendered a response that
combined anger … with gratitude …. Though Moore also took steps to encourage publication of her work, her qualms (more than mere modesty) seem consistent with her revisionary practice in their questioning of the privileged and inviolable status of established texts ….”
In other words, Moore’s resistance was not to publication per se, but to the fixedness such undertakings implied. By publishing a limited edition through a British press, Bryher ensured that Moore could revisit, revise, and republish the poems in later editions and versions, most notably the American Observations, a collection that included much of the work in Poems but published three years later, at Eliot’s urging. Bryher’s willingness to refigure the relationship between poet and publisher, motivated by the personal as well as professional alliances that marked her career, eliminated the more mercenary aspects of publishing, and made it possible for her closest friends (Moore, but also Weaver and H.D.) to work unencumbered.
The chivalric origins of the “agonistic” facet of sponsorship — the champion standing for and defending his familiar — complicate and expand on assessments of Bryher’s patronage as well, specifically through her written reviews. Like Eliot and others, she had no qualms about reviewing her friends. Indeed, one might excuse the uncomfortable ethical propriety of reviewing books one has paid to publish by acknowledging its long tradition within modernist literature, and the fact that Bryher’s wealth obviated the need to sell the books in order to become or remain profitable. In Harriet Monroe’s “symposium” on Marianne Moore, published in the January 1922 number of Poetry, Bryher’s review of Poems reveals both her literary fluency and her efforts to guarantee Moore a wide readership. Monroe describes Bryher (perhaps disingenuously) as a “more moderate admirer” of Moore’s, though the review itself is glowing and poetic in its own right:
This volume … is the fretting of a wish against wish until the self is drawn, not into a world of air and adventure but into a narrower self, patient, dutiful and precise. “Those Various Scalpels” is … as brilliant a poem as any written of late years …. [Moore’s] Poems are an important addition to American literature, to the entire literature of the modern world.
Bryher engaged both the literary and commercial aspects of publishing, doing what she can to establish Moore’s first book as “an important addition to American literature” and situating the poet among those more commonly reviewed in Poetry at the time (Eliot, Pound, H.D., Lowell). It is, in many ways, a nascent form of support and patronage that Bryher would later develop throughout her tenure as publisher/editor of various magazines and presses.
“I would start a film club”: Crossing boundaries in Close Up
By 1927, Bryher had divorced McAlmon and married Kenneth Macpherson, a move that allowed her to more fully explore the patron/publisher roles she had begun to inhabit during her first marriage. With Macpherson and H.D., Bryher established a complicated, triangulated personal relationship — the bisexual Macpherson and H.D. were briefly romantically involved, while Bryher and Macpherson legally adopted Perdita, H.D.’s daughter from an affair with the composer Cecil Gray — which found creative fruition in Close Up magazine, the first film magazine in English, and the film and publishing company POOL. Close Up provided a forum for the pedagogical mode that Bryher embraced from an early age: Her theories of education achieve full expression in the pages of this magazine, devoted as it is to explicating both a modernist aesthetic and a burgeoning and at times baffling new medium. Close Up also established an aesthetic and intellectual connection between the art of cinema and the literary experimentation undertaken by modernist poets and novelists, particularly women. This connection was cultivated and influenced by Bryher’s engagement with both genres, her willingness to put writers and filmmakers into dialogue with each other, and her continued publication of poets as film theorists (and vice versa). The magazine provided a platform through which Bryher first engaged what Celena Kusch calls her “transnational cultural project … shaping the definition of modernism” across national borders. Through Close Up, Bryher created connections between modernist artists in multiple genres, a project that would come to define her influence on the era as a whole.
Bryher, H.D., and Macpherson launched POOL and Close Up with the July 1927 number. Close Up was initially a monthly journal intended to “transform the cultural topography of the cinema and its future,” though as the years went on its frequency diminished to quarterly, and it closed in 1933. While Macpherson was the editor in chief and established the philosophical underpinnings of the journal, Bryher took on the managing editor role, running the day-to-day aspects of the magazine and often taking charge of contributors and content. Close Up performed several important functions for Bryher as editor and publisher, and as a cultural avatar. Anne Friedberg argues that
[i]n retrospect, the body of writing in Close Up appears as its own form of “literary montage” — a serial project with the random architecture of juxtaposition, an exhibit of documents which offers the contemporary reader an extensive tour of the ardent debates about cinema as it emerged as an aesthetic form.
Close Up thus embraced a distinctly modernist approach to both intellectual engagement and the cultivation of the reader. This embrace of “montage” helped justify her habit of putting poets and filmmakers into conversation with each other and the reader, placing multiple points of view and theories in close proximity in order to make them new, strange, or provocative in ways that recall both avant-garde filmmakers and the fractured, multifaceted element of modernism more generally. At the same time, Close Up was an organ for publishing writers Bryher personally and publicly championed, giving them room to develop ideas in multiple genres within a supportive environment.
Throughout her tenure as publisher and editor of Close Up, Bryher’s willingness to break the boundaries between art and politics surfaced in her encouragement of her favorite artists to push beyond their own generic ideals. Writers and poets tackled film criticism and theory, while filmmakers contributed poetry and short essays. H.D.’s contributions to Close Up provide a useful example of this: She submitted eleven articles during the first two years of the magazine’s existence, along with poetry. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, her efforts dropped off once the magazine became embroiled in debate about sound and film, leaving behind the more visual elements of the genre.) H.D.’s engagement with film was, as Laura Marcus argues, “in many ways idiosyncratic, to be understood as an aspect of her broader concerns with language and symbol, psychoanalysis, mysticism and spiritualism, classicism and the celebration of women’s beauty and power.” Bryher’s willingness to publish her “idiosyncratic” and, at times, digressive work in a magazine so deeply devoted to both the theory and technical exploration of film demonstrates her personal/professional commitment to H.D.’s artistic development, even if it occasionally wandered from the overt mission of the journal.
In the first issue, July 1927, H.D. published two pieces: a poem, “Projector,” and the first of a three-part film critique, titled “The Cinema and the Classics.” These two works inform each other and frame the number — the critique is the first “feature” and the poem is the last, creating a visual break between the significant body articles and the “Comments and Review” and “Advertisements” departments. H.D.’s relative inexperience with film (particularly as compared to Macpherson or even Bryher) is less important than her desire to write about it, and her criticism introduces ideas that echo, and are echoed in, her poetry. The first installment of “The Cinema and the Classics” is subtitled “Beauty” and H.D. dispenses quickly with movies per se, beginning her second paragraph with the dismissive, “So much for cinema.” Better, she argues, to think of film in terms of an endangered experience of beauty, specifically one that enables something like transcendence: “Anyhow it is up to us, as quickly as we can, to rescue this captured Innocent [film] … stepping frail yet secure across a wasted city. … Beauty, among other things, is reality, and … beauty herself, Helen of Troy, rises triumphant and denounces the world for a season, then retires.” Film becomes a metaphor for resistance to war’s ugliness and brutality, a capricious art capable of instigating fleeting moments of “triumph” that recall an epic age of beauty and glory.
These images appear again in “Projector,” a poem that, while named for a cinematic technology, quickly leaves behind these mechanical roots in favor of a meditation on light, mythology, and transcendence. Here, film is invoked primarily in the ways that H.D. conjures images — shrines, gateways, markets, cross-roads — recalling the frenetic jump-cut of the cinematic frame. As in a film, the images work together to evoke something bigger, epic, transcendent: the light from the projector bulb morphs into “a king of blazing splendour and of gold,” an image that reappears throughout lines that juxtapose pomp and majesty, gold and light, mythos and spiritual revelation. Ultimately, the projector gives a “vision” that offers “fresh hope” for “weary eyes that never saw the sun fall in the sea / nor the bright Pleadiads [sic] rise.” The lyricism of H.D.’s verse and the poetics of her criticism are markedly different from the pedagogical tone of Bryher’s editorials or Macpherson’s theoretical examinations of film. Instead what emerges is a poet working through her own project, using film as one source of inspiration in her own engagement with poetry and spirituality.
These pieces appeared in the first issue of Close Up but they are indicative of the pattern of H.D.’s contributions to the magazine, which themselves reveal Bryher’s own priorities. One of H.D.’s final essays for Close Up, “An Appreciation,” in the March 1929 number, continues her montage style of image-driven, lyrical criticism, situating film critique within the poetic discourse previously established by her oeuvre. Ostensibly a celebration of the career of the actress Louise Brooks, H.D.’s rumination instead dwells lovingly on Brooks’s eating habits, her attitudes at lunch, and a brief conversation between her and G.W. Pabst. H.D. recalls the merits of Christmas pudding, and digresses on emotions and art, calling art “a sentiment that is never called forth and never inspired and never made to blossom by technical ability, by sheer perfection of a medium, by originality and by intellectualism, no matter how dynamic …” But we must wait three pages for H.D. to even mention a specific film, and then it is not Brooks but Pabst whom she praises, shifting the entire focus of the critique as fluidly as she earlier moved from pudding to beauty.
Thus film became one more medium in which H.D. could begin to articulate a philosophy of art as “universal,” capable of, as Marcus argues, “bridging national differences or, at least, … allowing for a clear, undistorted perception of the terms of such differences.” By providing an outlet for H.D.’s idiosyncratic film writings, Bryher encouraged the poet to venture into new forms, new genres, and new ideas by ensuring an audience for them. She also made explicit her own connection to, and support of those ideas. The ease with which she incorporated H.D.’s cross-genre experimentation into the theoretical and technical discourse of Close Up is indicative of Bryher’s own fluidity in regard to her role as publisher, editor, patron, and friend.
“Responsibility for the future”: Publishing during the wars
Bryher’s influence on Close Up was visible until it folded in 1933. Unwilling, perhaps, to stray too far from the world of literary publishing, she started Brendin Publishing Company shortly thereafter. Brendin specialized in limited editions of books, including a lavishly illustrated edition of Marianne Moore’s The Pangolin and Other Verse in 1936; the 1937 Cinema Survey pamphlet by Bryher, Robert Herring, and Dallas Bower; an illustrated edition of H.D.’s children’s book, The Hedgehog; and two collections of H.D.’s poetry intended as for “private circulation” among their friends. These limited-edition books were more than mere frivolity, however, despite the fact that they were printed at the height of the Depression in England, as the continent edged perilously close to war. Even during Britain’s increasingly difficult national and political situation in the 1930s and 1940s, Brendin remained able to produce books, and as a result, helped keep literary production alive in England through World War II. Bryher’s influence is most apparent in her acquisition through Brendin of Life and Letters, at that time a floundering but respectable literary magazine that she retitled Life and Letters To-Day. Critical interpretation of this journal tends to focus on Bryher’s publication of twenty-three of the thirty-one new poems H.D. wrote between 1931 and 1950 in its pages, rather than its lengthy run and international scope. There is little evidence, however, to support the idea that Brendin or Life and Letters To-Day were H.D.’s vanity presses, gifts bestowed by a paternalistic sponsor upon a pet poet; rather, they mark a triumph of Bryher’s skill as editor and publisher, making accessible a wide range of international voices and genres to readers all over the world, and provide a fitting conclusion to her publishing career.
With Life and Letters To-Day, Bryher managed to create and keep viable a literary magazine that explicitly connected her intimate friends and personal aesthetic philosophies to an international community of modernist artists, allowing British readers to experience a range of ideas even as World War II loomed on the horizon. She took over the publication of the magazine in 1935, with her friend and Close Up contributor Robert Herring. The journal had been in existence at that point for seven years, a vehicle primarily of the Bloomsbury group of writers and artists. In a letter from Virginia Woolf to her sister, Vanessa Bell, in February 1928, Woolf details the initial aim of the magazine and its editor, Desmond MacCarthy:
Desmond has been given £6.000 by Oliver Brett to start a monthly magazine with. How bored you would be to hear all of us authors chattering about it! — not that it will ever come out, but if it did come out it would be the most brilliant, the most advanced, the best said paper in the world — Also it would make Desmond’s fortune, so he says.
While the magazine did manage to be born, MacCarthy never achieved the wealth and fame (let alone the superlatives) he hoped for. In part, his own idiosyncrasies may have doomed Life and Letters: his insistence on reviews of established writers; his love of detective fiction; and his embrace of the Bloomsbury writers, who by then were no longer quite so cutting edge. Though MacCarthy published notable authors like Vita Sackville-West, Bertrand Russell, and Robert Graves, he was unable, finally, to establish a coherent identity or aesthetic. The magazine underwent significant financial difficulty and two changes in editorial staff and ownership before Bryher’s school friend and fellow writer, Petrie Townshend, alerted her to the possibility of buying it for £1,500 in April 1935. Bryher appointed Herring, her friend and collaborator from Close Up, and Townshend (for two issues) to handle what she called the “hack work” of day-to-day editing, while she solicited manuscripts and shaped the editorial vision.
This shift in the roles Bryher adopted is notable after her professional collaboration with Macpherson, in which she ably handled the “hack work” to support Macpherson’s vision. Unlike Macpherson, however, Bryher’s name did not appear on the masthead of the newly revamped Life and Letters To-Day, despite her editorial input. Instead, the Table of Contents reads like a Who’s Who of those writers and artists, particularly filmmakers, she worked with throughout her life. The last issue of Life and Letters under Hamish Miles (who took over from MacCarthy in the last years of their involvement with the magazine) includes writers like Roland Lushington and Denis Ireland, and is fronted by an ad for the Everyman’s Library editions of Henry James and G.K. Chesterton. Bryher and Herring’s first issue, on the other hand, bears a remarkable resemblance to the contributor lists of Close Up and even Contact and Contact Editions: Mary Butts, Osbert Sitwell, Siegfried Sassoon, Gertrude Stein, and Havelock Ellis fill its more than 200 pages, and the facing ad signals that the following issue will feature Wallace Stevens, Hanns Sachs, and Jean Prevost. There is a “Cinema Section,” of course, with articles by Sergei Eisenstein and Robert Herring, and an extensive “Reviews of Books” section which in later issues becomes varied enough to warrant categorization by country of origin. Bryher even titled the current events section “News Reel,” a nod to her and Herring’s cinematic backgrounds. Later issues included Dylan Thomas, Dorothy Richardson, Marianne Moore, a very young Elizabeth Bishop, and Thomas Mann. Renata Morresi argues that
Life and Letters To-Day aimed at becoming a centre for cultural debate on literature and the arts, promoting young talented writers, and, in general, at being a crucible for the new, which included new sciences such as psychoanalysis and anthropology and new arts such as cinema.
In this respect, it much more closely resembled other little magazines that preceded it (The Dial, Poetry, The Little Review, The Egoist), than it did a vanity publishing outlet. Bryher’s tenure as publisher/editor lasted fifteen years, rivaling all but Harriet Monroe at Poetry in terms of the length of her run — and she did it under arguably more difficult circumstances. Bryher’s Life and Letters To-Day not only stayed afloat until 1950, it did so as bombs destroyed three different office locations — and sold out month after month.
Although Bryher’s name is not on the masthead as editor, her influence can be seen throughout the magazine. The first (unsigned) editorial in the first issue details the magazine’s mission:
We are aware of our debt to the past. We are conscious also of responsibility to the future, and it is because of the need to maintain an outlet for the non-commercial work of our time that we are trying to give “Life and Letters” further life. it will, we are told, be uphill work … we would declare that any bias we have is not towards experiment for its own sake, but to unrecognised achievement. We incline to young writers more for what they may do, given outlet, than for what they have done.
Herring may be the presumptive writer, but the language echoes not only Bryher’s own syntax — her writings for the magazine included reviews, articles, and a serialized novella — but also the philosophy of patronage mentioned briefly in her memoirs. In The Heart to Artemis, she recalls her father’s admonition to support only those artists who are still living (for they need the money), and his willingness to pay for “some of my incredibly bad verses to be printed.” One might see her father’s willingness to blur filial and professional boundaries as the beginning of Bryher’s own such efforts, and it echoes in the “Editorial” — particularly the determination to support what young artists “might do” rather than what “they have done.” Bryher herself proudly recounted her contributor list in The Days of Mars, her memoir of the war years:
Besides contributions from the Sitwells, H.D., Elizabeth Bowen, Dylan Thomas, Vernon Watkins, Alex Comfort and many other writers, we printed, I believe, the first story by Sartre to be translated into English and an early tale by Kafka.
Her deep commitment to an international scope of literary art is apparent as well. Celena Kusch has argued that Bryher was responsible for “connecting H.D. and many of her American colleagues with continental artists and intellectuals” in the early parts of their respective careers; with Life and Letters To-Day, that commitment to a transnational community of artists took concrete form. Kusch reads the first issue’s “Editorial” as indicative of Bryher’s underlying fascination with the “youth” and possibility represented by the idea of America. More than that, it represents the creation of a truly international space, where multiple languages and political beliefs, strangers and intimates, can mingle under the umbrella of modern art. Bryher kept Life and Letters To-Day going during the War, and was committed to its availability around the world, ensuring that her audience could consistently participate in the artistic conversation. The magazine represented the culmination of a lifetime of dedicated support and encouragement for the artists Bryher so admired and the readers she so ardently hoped to cultivate for them.
The transnational element of Bryher’s editorship is a useful place to conclude an analysis of her work within the development of an audience for modernist poetry. Rather than simply seeking larger outlets for the writers published therein, Bryher explicitly saw the development of international relationships, and the education of her readers, as a crucial aspect of her role as publisher/editor. Her own restless relocation, and her sense that she didn’t quite belong to any one country until she staked her lot with Britain during the Blitz, reverberates throughout the magazine’s attempts to connect international empathy, antifascism (or perhaps antinationalism), and artistic engagement. In the Summer 1937 issue, Bryher published a piece titled “Paris 1900,” in which she claims to have “geographic emotions,” that is, a natural empathy with cities — and all the history, social heterogeneity, and motion that they imply — rather than individual people. Implicit within this is the idea of committing to communities rather than nations, and to connecting those communities through wanderlust and international engagement.
In the Autumn 1936 issue, a year before Bryher’s “Paris” piece, the opening “Editorial” established the political and historical ramifications of this fluidity, inviting readers to join a community invested not only in art but also in world politics and social development. Employing a universal and again unsigned “we,” the piece addresses the Spanish civil war and launches an interrogation of the role of art within international dialogues, which ultimately continues until the magazine abruptly ceases publication in 1950. It begins as, quite literally, a call to arms:
A year ago we expressed out intention of being non-political in these pages.… But a year ago is a year ago, and it would be useless to maintain now that Spain’s civil war is none of our business. It is everyone’s business. We hope that we speak for our readers as well as for our authors when we say that we consider it impossible to go to press without paying tribute to the courage of the Spanish people fighting in support of their government.
“We” goes on to criticize the coverage of the war in the English and French press, decrying the media’s painting of the loyalists as “really the rebels,” and warning that such media might be a harbinger of what may come to Britain or France, should a fascist force take over. Moving quickly from politics to the efforts of the International Association of Writers in Defence of Culture to establish the freedom of the press even during times of conflict, the “Editorial” provides the first instance in which Bryher and Herring were explicit about the connection between a vital literary culture and liberty:
But because we ourselves, with our translations and articles from other countries, attempt to keep the world open instead of a collection of closed nationalistic compartments, we do stress that writers such as Gorki when he was alive, Gide, Karel Kapek, Heinrich and Thomas Mann … were alive to the necessity of urging their colleagues to make a stand for those principles of humanity for which they are, or should be, the spokesperson.
Life and Letters To-Day became, in many senses, a beacon of international creativity and audience engagement, an outlet for the editors to educate, empower, and ultimately plead with their audience to take part in the growing unrest around the world. This is particularly true of Bryher, who saw herself at the front lines of a war that no one else would admit was coming. In The Heart to Artemis she recalls living in Switzerland, where she edited Life and Letters To-Day via post and used her home to help Jewish artists flee an increasingly hostile Germany and Austria: “I warned the English privately and also in print. They called me a warmonger and jeered at me for my pains .… I remain ashamed of the majority of my fellow citizens and convinced that apathy is the greatest sin in life.” This sentiment comes through clearly in both the “Editorial” of 1936, and in future issues, a sense that the readers must be active, must be cognizant of, and work to defend, the connection between artistic freedom, international peace, and justice. Most of all, Bryher here enacted an active rejection of the boundaries between such ideals, blurring the lines between art and politics much as she blurred the lines between intimate and professional engagement.
Life and Letters To-Day (by that time titled simply Life and Letters again) abruptly closed in 1950, following a notice at the end of the May 1950 number stating simply: “It is regretted that it has been found impossible to continue LIFE AND LETTERS. The review will therefore be suspended after the June issue, which completes the present volume. The balance of subscriptions will be refunded in due course.” The brevity was likely perceived as jarring for readers, for the next (final) issue features a lengthy apology and explanation for the decision. The June 1950 leader begins:
With this number, as announced in the May issue, we suspend publication. That notice, occurring as it did on the last page and consisting of only three and a half lines, may have seemed somewhat curt. For that, I would apologize. I intended no discourtesy to readers but sought, rather, not to distract attention from the Norwegian authors, whose number it was, by discoursing unduly on so personal or domestic a matter as our cessation.
The reasons Bryher gives for shutting down the magazine will not be unfamiliar to scholars of, or participants in, small-press publication: loss of money, lack of time, instability. I name Bryher here as the single author of this unsigned “Editorial” — the first and only to employ the singular “I” rather than “we” — in part because the focus is so clearly on the financial aspects of publication, but also because she quickly turns attention not only to the readers, writers, and staff, but also to the behind-the-scenes companies that enabled literary production. It is here that she adopts the plural “we”:
Looking back, indeed, the wonder would seem less that we end now than that we did not before — at almost any time in the last ruffled decade-and-a-half of wars, cold wars, and wars of nerves; of abdication and elections; of restriction, regimentation, and reaction. But I do not propose to look back .… We have not lacked support, and I would like here to thank not only readers and writers, but also publishers, agents, and the trade for their unvarying help …
This acknowledgement of the workhorses of the publishing industry — in the same breath as the creativity they make possible — was typical of Bryher’s own sense of the debt owed to the people behind the legends, a tacit awareness, perhaps, of her own place within that circle. Indeed, in The Heart to Artemis, she recalls meeting Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, whom she much preferred: “[I]t was Miss Toklas whom I loved. She was so kind to me. Perhaps this came from her long practice as Gertrude wrote ‘of sitting with the wives of geniuses.’” As one who had long been regarded as a “wife” of genius — whether supporting Robert McAlmon, H.D., or Kenneth Macpherson — Bryher might easily have seen herself allied as strongly with the businessmen as with the artists. After folding Life and Letters, Bryher went on to develop her own creative impulses, writing a series of bestselling historical novels and three memoirs, and formally ending her position as an editor and publisher (though not ceasing her financial support of individual artists). The final “Editorial” thus provides a fitting coda to a publishing career that spanned three decades and crossed multiple boundaries, upsetting social conceptions of personal and professional relationships; creating a critically empowered readership; and ultimately redefining the role of the editor/publisher/patron in the first half of the twentieth century.
3. See Kay Boyle’s savage characterization of the quiet heiress as “infantile” in Being Geniuses Together (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1968), 53, or Guest’s portrait of a pathologically controlling, and frustratingly sullen, misanthrope in Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 115. Susan Stanford Friedman offers some insight into Guest’s characterization by demonstrating that her representation of H.D. is one of “a fragile and nervous Circe who draws everyone into her net.” See “Review: H.D.,” Contemporary Literature 26, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 109.
7. Susan McCabe, “Bryher’s Archive: Modernism and the Melancholy of Money,” in English Now: Selected Papers from the 20th IAUPE Conference in Lund 2007 (Lund, Sweden: Lund University Press, 2008), 119. Emphasis mine.
13. Two Selves begins with an evocation of what we might now call transgenderism: “Two selves. Jammed against each other, disjointed and ill-fitting. An obedient Nancy with heavy plaits…. A boy, a brain, that planned adventures and sought wisdom.” Bryher, Two Novels Development and Two Selves, ed. Joanne Winning (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 183.
17. In The Heart to Artemis, Bryher recalls meeting Doris Banfield, the girl who took her “all over the [Scilly] islands” (148). They “were inseparable” and “only [grew] nearer to each other throughout the intervening years” (148). The island was, of course, Bryher Island in the Scillies, the name she ultimately adopted as her own.
23. George Bornstein argues that the publication of Poems was a misguided failure, as Moore repeatedly expressed unhappiness with that edition. See Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 140.
26. Letters from McAlmon at the time suggest few people saw Poems as contrary to Moore’s wishes. He writes, “What do you hear from Marianne? I hope she isn’t irretrievably offended by publication of her book, anti —” implying that her unhappiness was more performative than serious (Robert McAlmon, letter to Bryher, 1921, 1).
28. In The Heart to Artemis, Bryher discusses Moore and H.D., and indeed all of the Paris set, almost entirely in terms of friendship and conversation; she mentions little of the financial aspect of these relationships.
30. Celena Kusch, “‘Not a Continent I Dreamed About’: Bryher’s Circle Between the Wars” (paper presented at the Modernist Studies Association Annual Conference, Montreal, Quebec, November 6, 2009), 2.
31. Anne Friedberg, “Introduction: Reading Close Up, 1927–1933,” in Close Up 1927–1933: Cinema and Modernism, ed. James Donald, Anne Friedberg, and Laura Marcus (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 3.
33. Marcus argues, convincingly, that when H.D. did write about sound, she “contrast[ed] it (for the most part unfavourably) with the ‘masks’ of silent cinema which, like those of Greek drama, conceal … a mystery and a vision destroyed by the ‘mechanical,’ overtly automated technologies of ‘movietone’ sound” (“Introduction: Reading Close Up,” 101).
35. Marcus notes, “the interplay between an aesthetics of formal restraint and one of emotional, spiritual, or ‘psychic’ transcendence, between holding back and going beyond, runs throughout H.D.’s film writings.” “Introduction: The Contribution of H.D.,” 97.
41. H.D. spends much time on the food: “Louise Brooks said that the Christmas pudding she had had in London was not flat, but round — basin shape. That she had liked it very much, and lived on it for a week.” “An Appreciation,” 57.
45. In Material Modernism, George Bornstein argues that such small, limited editions played “an important role in modernist dissemination during the 1910s and especially the 1920s,” and that Bryher’s use of her wealth to continue the tradition “gestured toward an alternate economic order to the one that had led to the Depression itself” (112–13).
46. Even H.D. biographer Barbara Guest saw the journal as a vanity press for the poet, writing, “If H.D. were worried about her neglect by the literary scene … Bryher would provide a publication in which H.D.’s poetry and prose could once more find its readers.” Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 232.
47. Bryher’s prescient decision to stock up on paper in 1938 led to accusations that Life and Letters To-Day was hoarding. They were forced to share with other, “less thoughtful” publications as the War dragged on. Charlotte Mandel, “Letters Across the Atlantic: H.D., Bryher, May Sarton, During World War II,” in A Celebration for May Sarton: Essays and Speeches from the National Conference “May Sarton at 80: A Celebration of Her Life and Work,” ed. Constance Hunting (Orono, ME: Puckerbrush Press, 1992), 98.
48. Quoted in Renata Morresi, “Two Examples of Women’s ‘Hidden’ Cultural Net(work): Nancy Cunard’s Onion and Life and Letters To-Day,” in Networking Women: Subjects, Places, Links Europe-America: Towards a Re-writing of Cultural History, 1890–1939, ed. Marina Camboni (Rome, Italy: Edizioni di Storia e Litteratura, 2004), 376.
51. Interestingly, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Susan Stanford Friedman recount one episode in which Bryher was kept from publishing a poem by H.D. (“The Master”), which the poet denied her the rights to. For a fuller discussion, see “‘Woman is Perfect’: H.D.’s Debate with Freud,” Feminist Studies 7, no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 417–430.
61. From 1920 until 1950, Bryher’s travels and residences span the globe: New York, California, Paris, London, Cornwall, Berlin, Switzerland, Greece, Egypt — to say nothing of a childhood spent partly in Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
65. Bryher’s suspicion of state-sponsored censorship can be traced at least as far back as her work for Close Up and her 1927 book-length study, Film Problems of Soviet Russia (Bryher, “Editorial,” Life and Letters To-Day 15, no. 5 [Autumn 1936]: 3).
From content to context
Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too.
— Frank O’Hara, “Personism: A Manifesto”(1959)
Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.
— Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect” (1918)
Scene: the State Dining Room of the White House on the afternoon of May 11, 2011. Occasion: a poetry workshop held under the auspices of Michelle Obama for high school student-poets. The workshop has been organized by the First Lady’s close friend, the Yale poet-professor Elizabeth Alexander, who wrote the inaugural poem for Obama in 2008. The four participating poets are the former laureates Rita Dove and Billy Collins, along with — implausibly enough — the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith and Fluxus performance artist Alison Knowles. Seven teenage students have been chosen to read their work, and in the evening there is to be a poetry reading by Dove, Collins, Goldsmith, Knowles, and a few others, with President and Mrs. Obama in attendance.
After Alexander makes a brief introduction about the powers of poetry, Melody Barnes, the president’s domestic policy adviser, discusses the importance of the arts — poetry, dance, country music, Motown hits — for young people, stressing the fact that those schools that incorporate the arts into their regular curriculum (English, math, science) get a better yield of “successful” students. She then introduces the first poet, Tiesha Hines, a senior at Ballou High School in Washington, DC. Tiesha, we learn, “has been writing poetry since she was seven and is now president of her poetry club …. After she graduates, she is going to get to use those skills in other ways, as she studies criminal justice at Fortis College and Trinity University.”
Note the assumption here that poetic composition is a skill to be applied elsewhere. Tiesha’s “poetic” abilities will transfer to her study of a subject that matters in the real world — criminal justice. Poetry, by contrast, does not matter in the real world and is not something that grown-ups do, except for a few “professionals” like the four invited poets. Tiesha accepts this definition herself: she tells the audience that she was chosen because she loves to write poetry but also for her “positive attitude and compassion for other poets.” And, having read a short love poem (“Ten Things I Want to Throw at You”), Tiesha turns the podium over to the First Lady, who welcomes “this extraordinary group of poets” to the White House. Michelle Obama begins by explaining her own interest in poetry:
I was a budding writer. Elizabeth [Alexander] doesn’t know this …. [B]ut when I was young, I was a passionate creative writer and sort of a poet. That’s how I would release myself. Whenever I was struggling in school, or didn’t want to go outside and deal with the nonsense of the neighborhood, I would write and write and write and write.
So this workshop and celebrating you all is important to me … because I think it was my writing that sort of prepared me for so much of what I’ve had to do in my life as an adult.
There it is again: the theme of poetry as preparation for a useful life, a serious life. Poetry as “release,” as escape from the daily struggle and “nonsense of the neighborhood.” “And when you write poetry,” the First Lady continues, “you’re not just expressing yourself. You’re also connecting to people …. Think about how you feel when you read a poem that really speaks to you; one that perfectly expresses what you’re thinking and feeling. When you read that, you feel understood, right? I know I do. You feel less alone. I know I do. You realize despite all our differences, there are so many human experiences and emotions that we share.”
And so on. The uplift theme continues for a few more minutes, honoring poetry as expression, connection, communication — and escape from the drudgery of daily life. Finding your authentic voice, tapping into your unique and truest feelings: this is the poet’s task. And Michelle Obama concludes by announcing, “I’m going to sit for the first session and hear a little bit, but we’ll probably get up while you keep going.” The reference is to her need to leave before long, together with her special guest, Mrs. Margarita Zavala, the First Lady of Mexico. These First Ladies have important things to do!
Poetry, we surmise from these introductory remarks, is essentially a teenager’s pastime. Writing and reading it can help our young people stay off the streets and express their better selves. But such self-expression, friends, has its limits: when we grow up, we must turn from poetry to things that matter — real things! Shades of the prison house, as Wordsworth put it in the great Immortality Ode, begin to close upon us. In the meantime, though, there is “finding your voice.” After some short statements by the “professionals,” of which more below, we are treated to readings of seven student poems. The first poem to be read is called “Belly Song”; it is “dedicated to my mother who has been diagnosed with kidney failure”:
Eight months you carried me
Morning sickness wasn’t ready,
Eight months you carried
But I, I will
Carry you as long as needed, sit
In my belly
For I shall hold you, sit
In my belly
To the song it sings for my heart
My belly song
Will cure your sickness
From kidneys that decided they had enough
Filtering blood so that your heart will pump my heart
Of daughter-mommy day
Of pillow fights and movie nights …
The second reader picks up on the memory theme with “Those Were the Days”:
I remember those good old days
The days when I ran with a Barbie in my right hand
And a toy car in my left,
The days when I ate the chicken
And put the veggies in a napkin
The days of naptime and milk with cookies
Yea, I remember those days
With the screens and the elves
The whips and the brooms
The ultimatums and the dusters
Those were the days.
I remember those days
With the beer bottles and the hard liquor
With the tears and the blood
Those good old days
With the police and the jail visits
The CIA and immigration
And lonely nights with no one to tuck me in
Yeah, those were the days
I did my homework with no help
I cooked my own food
I did the cleaning
I got fatter and fatter
I remember those days,
Which I worked out alone
Which I exceeded without you,
Which I ate my burnt food
Yeah, I remember.
What does the word “poem” mean to these aspiring poets? What conventions govern their poetic discourse? I find three constants: (1) poetry is assumed to be self-expression — the expression of one’s most private and often painful feelings; (2) poetry is text that is lineated (and when delivered orally, punctuated by pauses at line-ends); and (3) poetry exploits phrasal repetition, as in “eight months I carried” and “sit / in my belly” in the first poem and “Those were the days” and the “I did” and “which” clauses in the second. There is, evidently, no thought of using meter, of counting stresses or syllables. If it is divided into lines, these texts say, it’s poetry; if it’s not, it’s just prose. And repetition — or more properly refrain — underscores the personal feeling of a ubiquitous “I.”
The voice that comes through these recountings of “unique” experience turns out to be surprisingly uniform, despite differences in ethnicity and gender (“Belly Song” is by a young African American woman; “Memory” by a Hispanic male). Indeed the “Memories / Of pillow fights and movie nights” could be exchanged with the “Days of naptime and milk and cookies” in “Those Were the Days,” without much difference in tone or meaning. In both cases, the “I” is the victim of unanticipated external forces: the mother’s kidney disease in the first; CIA immigration policies in the second. In both cases, fear and pain are associated with the loss of a loved parent. The “I” must be strong and learn to cope.
The resulting rhetoric is often praised for its authenticity, but how authentic is it? The belly metaphor, for example, which compares the mother’s protection of her child in the womb to the daughter’s desire to, so to speak, swallow her mother’s body so that she can shield her inside her belly, is strained: a gradual gestation is compared to the momentary urge to change a desperate situation. And the image of the mother’s diseased body inside her daughter is even more problematic. In a similar vein, the second poem’s comparisons of “ultimatums” to “dusters,” “whips” to “brooms,” is hardly a simulation of natural speech. More important, here words are sometimes used incorrectly, as in “I exceeded without you,” evidently for “I succeeded without you,” the lines further marred by the ungrammatical use of “which” where “in which” is called for. Language, in these instances, is regarded as a kind of afterthought or additive: first come the feelings to be embodied in words and only then does word choice kick in, designed to make the resulting discourse appear “poetic.”
No wonder — and it is not the students but their teachers who are to blame — that the readership of poetry has so drastically declined. How are students, whose knowledge of poetry is presumably confined to a high school anthology of near contemporaries, supposed to find their own poetic voice? Even the author of “Belly Song,” interestingly enough, turns to citation, in this case to the classic wedding vows in the Book of Common Prayer:
Our love is deeper
This daughter mommy love vowing
To be there in sickness and in health,
For richer or for poorer
’Til death do us part.
The conceptual reaction
When, as the famous anecdote has it, the painter Degas told the poet Mallarmé that he had good ideas for poems but couldn’t find the right words, the latter responded, “It is not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes poems. It is with words.” This is neither sophistry nor an unusual doctrine of poetry; it is the recognition that, as Wittgenstein put it, “The limits of language mean the limits of my world,” or “Language is not contiguous to anything else.” Those mysterious feelings and ideas the young poets are told to “express” are not there till they are materialized. As Robert Smithson puts it in a quip cited by Craig Dworkin in “The Fate of Echo,” his preface to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (edited with Kenneth Goldsmith): “my sense of language is that it is matter and not ideas — i.e., ‘printed matter.’” And the paradox that both editors pinpoint in their respective prefaces to the anthology is that, in the digital age, the best words for a given occasion may well not be one’s own at all.
Or so Goldsmith remarks in his own presentation at the White House workshop, based on his now well-known 2007 manifesto “Uncreative Writing.” Against the usual admonition to “Look in thy heart and write” (Rita Dove has just told the group that “Only you can tell your story. So if you remain true to your own experience, your voice will find you!”), he begins by noting, tongue in cheek, that his own students are penalized for any shred of originality or creativity they might show. As he puts it in the manifesto, “Instead they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering and stealing. Not surprisingly they thrive. Suddenly, what they’ve surreptitiously become expert at is brought out in the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness.” Copying, cutting and pasting, downloading, recycling: these activities, Goldsmith argues, will actually teach students more about literature than the seeming “originality” of self-expression. Whereas a fellow professor assigned students to write “in the style of Jack Kerouac,” Goldsmith would have them simply copy out a few pages of On the Road — a process that, he insists, will teach them more about Kerouac’s style than can the clever imitation. The analogy is to the apprentice painter of the nineteenth century who, before the days of adequate reproduction, diligently copied a Rembrandt or Vermeer for sale to fine arts patrons, thus becoming curiously familiar with the style in question.
But can such copying actually produce works of art? The White House audience, not surprisingly, looks a bit skeptical. In his new book Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, Goldsmith argues that, in the wake of the digital revolution, writers now face a situation similar to that of painters in the nineteenth century: “As photography forced artists to alter their approach to their medium, the [newly invented broadband] Internet presents challenges and opportunities for writers to reconceive ideas about creativity, authorship and their relationship to language. Confronted with an unprecedented amount of available text and language, writers need to move beyond the creation of new texts to manage, parse, appropriate, and reconstruct those that already exist.” And again, in his preface to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Goldsmith argues, “What we’re dealing with here is a basic change in the operative system of how we write at the root level.” Choice and framing take precedence over individual verbal invention. Context replaces content as textual determinant.
If this position sounds extreme — and it has so sounded to many poets and their readers — we might stop to consider that in the visual arts, conceptualism has been the dominant mode since the late 1960s, when Joseph Kosuth published his manifesto “Art after Philosophy” and Sol LeWitt his now classic “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” In the latter, we read:
In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art … is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman …. What the work of art looks like isn’t too important …. No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the artist is concerned.
The premise behind this and related manifestos was that, for at least the moment, “perceptual” art — what Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades anticipated conceptual art by half a century, called “the retinal shudder” — had lost its challenge: realistic, or even impressionistic and expressionistic, representation of the external world had become too easy, too familiar. Portraiture, for example, had become the domain of photography, as had representations of landscape. As for formalist abstraction, however “wonderful” the severe negation of the all-black paintings of Ad Reinhardt, Joseph Kosuth argued, they represented a point of no return: “After Reinhardt, the tradition of painting seemed to be in the process of completion, while the tradition of art, now unfettered, had to be re-defined.”
When Goldsmith published his own “Sentences on Conceptual Writing” (2005), a document which was, in fact, a verbatim copy of Sol LeWitt’s manifesto, merely substituting the phrase “uncreative writing” for “conceptual art” and “text” for “art” wherever these terms occurred, the poetry community, not recognizing the source, mostly expressed outrage at Goldsmith’s position, thus proving his point that poetic theory and practice were distinctly behind those of the visual arts (indeed, those of music as well), where LeWitt’s principles had long been accepted. It is the theme Dworkin, himself one of the most accomplished young conceptual poets, unpacks in “The Fate of Echo.” Reading conceptual poetry against the background of the conceptual art of the 1960s, Dworkin traces a line from the conceptualist rejection of visual image in favor of the dominant “idea” to the premise that, in the case of writing, opaque language is a starting point and hence something to be appropriated and thus called into question. Like Goldsmith, he is convinced that the digital revolution has been seminal:
[P]art of the difference between 1980 and 2000 derives from the cultural changes brought about by an increasingly digitized culture. During those decades, appropriation-based practices in other arts spread from isolated experiments to become a hallmark of hip-hop music, global DJ culture, and a ubiquitous tactic for mainstream and corporate media. Concurrently, sampling, mash-up, and the montage of found footage went from novel methods of production to widespread activities of consumption …. Conceptual poetry, accordingly, often operates as an interface — returning the answer to a particular query; assembling, rearranging and displaying information; or sorting and selecting from files of accumulated language pursuant to a certain algorithm — rather than producing new material from scratch. Even if it does not involve electronics or computers, conceptual poetry is thus very much a part of its technological and cultural moment.
Interestingly, this shift to a poetry “more graphic than semantic, more a physically material event than a disembodied or transparent medium for referential communication” (xliii), haunts the May 11 poetry workshop and reading at the White House, even though no one but Goldsmith, and indirectly Alison Knowles, demonstrating one of her Bean Bag sound pieces to the audience, talks about the problem. The inclusion of singer-songwriters Aimee Mann and Jill Scott, rap artist Common, and comedian-playwright-composer Steve Martin, in what was billed a “poetry event” at the White House, suggests that the organizers felt that poetry as such wouldn’t quite cut it.
Thus, although all the student performers in the afternoon workshop were writing traditional lyric under the sign of, say, Rita Dove, the evening reading itself veered increasingly toward musical performance. The relationship between poetry and performance became complicated: the audience was reassured about “imaginative writing” by being treated to a kind of “poetry-plus,” with plenty of song to interrupt what might otherwise have been the tedium of the merely verbal.
Still, as the inclusion (fortuitous or not) of Goldsmith and Knowles at the White House event suggests, there are other possibilities for poetry. As Dworkin puts it:
The great break with even the most artificial, ironic, or asemantic work of other avant-gardes is the realization that one does not need to generate new material to be a poet: the intelligent organization or reframing of already extant text is enough. Through the repurposing or détournement of language that is not their own (whatever that might mean), the writers here allow arbitrary rules to determine the chance and unpredictable disposition of that language; they let artificial systems trump organic forms; and they replace making with choosing, fabrication with arrangement, and production with transcription.
Such détournement, Dworkin suggests, can go a long way in countering the public perception of the poetic as an additive of sorts, a special language made of tropes and figures of speech devised by the “sensitive” poet who knows how to tap into his or her memory pool. One of the two poems read by laureate Billy Collins at the White House was called “Forgetfulness” and begins:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
When the poet read these lines at the White House, the audience politely chuckled. Indeed, the first time one hears this gently self-deprecating account of memory loss it seems funny and familiar. Oh yes, we’ve all been there, at least those of us of a certain age! But “Forgetfulness” cannot bear much inspection. For not only is the metaphor forced — where is the fishing village today that has no phones? — but, more important, an aging speaker suffering from memory loss could hardly give us such a clever description of the process, much less come up with the pun on “harbor” or the witty reference to the southern hemisphere of the brain. This is poetry as cocktail party banter. “Don’t imagine,” Pound warned us, “that a thing will ‘go’ in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose.”
The renewal of lyric
What, then, will “go” in verse? When Pound used the term he was referring neither to metrical nor to free verse (“vers libre has become as prolix and as verbose as any of the flaccid varieties that preceded it”) but to the musical phrase: “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome” (3). And again: “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave.” The musical phrase is, of course, associated with lyric: for the ancient Greeks, the term lyric referred to verse that was accompanied by a lyre or other stringed instrument (for example, the barbitos), and musical speech — speech to be sounded — characterized a large body of poetry from the Hebrew and the Chinese to the Arabic lyric of the Middle Ages and Troubadour verse of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
When lyric is construed, as it has been since the Romantics, as the art of self-expression, of the private language of a subject overheard while engaged in meditation or intimate conversation with another, conceptualism would seem to be, by definition, its enemy, relying, as it so often does, on words not one’s own or submitting ordinary words to elaborate rules. But if we relate lyric to the musical phrase, the dichotomy disappears: what Dworkin describes as “sorting and selecting from files of accumulated language” is perfectly consonant with the notion of a poem as a distinctively sounded structure, the proviso being that in the digital age the look of the text becomes equally important, so that all poetry is, in a sense, visual as well as sound poetry. In Joyce’s idiom, taken over by the Concrete poets, who anticipated some central strains of conceptualism, poetry is verbivocovisual.
Consider Goldsmith’s No. 111 2.7.92–10.20.96, a text generated, as the title tells us, between the dates February 7, 1992, and October 20, 1996, by recording all the phrases the author happened to come across in his daily reading that ended in the sound linguists designate as schwa — the er or uh sound which is one of the most common in English, as in father, finger, future, happier, but also in such one-syllable words as car or are. These units are then organized alphabetically by syllable count, beginning with one-syllable entries for chapter 1 (“A, a, aar, aer, agh, ah, air …) and culminating in the 7,228-syllable reproduction of an entire short story: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner.”
The five-page excerpt from this book selected for the Anthology of Conceptual Writing is chapter 8, with its eight-syllable phrases running from a to z and within a, from ab (“A beer does not come with in-laws, a Bohemian reformer” to “Australian buttchug moon river” (258–59). Here is a sample passage, beginning with de:
deliver Oscar caliber, Delta is ready when you are, der Wallet-emptyung Meter, Dhamacakkappavattana, Diarmuid and Grania, did damage on the 3s and 4s. Did I ever? Did I ever!, Did you ever!, Did I ever?, Did you ever!, Did you ever! Did I ever!, Did you ever? Did I ever?, Did you ever? Did you ever!, Did you finish sewing my bear?, dig a ding dang depadepa, digital slaves of the future, dinkus simmers in late summer, discharges corroding humours, dive into an icy river, Do food makers get fan letters?, Do me a big favor will ya?, do not whine to the Postmaster, dock doesn’t quite reach the water, Does anyone sing anymore? Does it speak to you any more? don’t ask me I only work here, don’t believe everything you hear, don’t even think of parking here. (260–61)
This absurdist catalogue, with its advertising slogans (“Delta is ready when you are”), slightly obscure literary titles (Yeats’s play Diarmuid and Grania), Indian chants, bop rhythms, questions, commands, bits of dialogue, homonyms, comic repartee, and slippery punctuation — a montage of voices that don’t go together and yet seem perfectly consonant with the way language actually confronts us today. At the same time, the elaborate structure of rhyme and anaphora, the nursery rhyme echoes and bits of chant (“Dive into an icy river”), the alliteration and assonance, and the return of the –er sound at every eighth syllable makes this a sequence curiously more “poetic” than, say, Billy Collins’s poem or the student poems I cited earlier. It gives us the sense that, however bizarre the discourse of our daily lives, it can be organized and given some kind of pattern that is meaningful. The words may not be Goldsmith’s, but their choice and framing certainly are.
The anthology contains extracts from many such “lyric” conceptual poems, from the “abecedaries” of the Vienna Group (571–75) and John Cage’s “Writing through The Cantos” (129–35) to Caroline Bergvall’s riff on Dante called “Via” (982–86) and Christian Bök’s extraordinary Eunoia (119–20), both of which I have discussed elsewhere. In the anthology, lyric is still in the minority — such recent texts as Vanessa Place’s Statement of Fact, her intricately structured presentation of police reports and court records pertaining to indigent sex offenders whose cases come before the appellate court where the author is a public defender, or Craig Dworkin’s own “Legion,” composed by “rearranging and recontexualizing the true-false questions of the 1942 Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory as if they were declarative confessional statements … part of a poetic monologue rather than a forensic instrument” (190) — these require the prose of their source texts, although Dworkin’s litany of I’s — “I wish I were not so shy,” “At times I feel like smashing things” — is, of course, a brilliant spoof on lyric self-revelation.
But in recent years, Dworkin, like many conceptual poets, has also turned back to lyric itself. Motes contains 150 minimalist poems, usually two per page (105 “Opuscula” and 45 “Ayres”), many of them epigrams, riddles, and definition poems in the vein of Pound’s “In the Station of the Metro” or, more immediately, Stein’s Tender Buttons. But whereas Stein describes, however elliptically and fancifully, the object designated by her title — “Milk,” “Sugar,” “Umbrella,” “Custard” — Dworkin’s concern is with the riddling of semantic overload: pun, paragram, homonym, foreign-language equivalent. “Every word,” he explains, “is multiply determined — by translation between languages, or sound, or typography, etc. — but my goal was to have all those rules as invisible and elided as possible.”
The title Motes is at once simple — we all know that motes are small particles or specks, especially of dust — but also resonant of the King James Bible, as in Matthew 7: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Dworkin’s epigraph from Spenser’s Faerie Queene (book 2, stanza 32), “Well mote yee thee, as well can wish your thought,” complicates the picture, for in Spenser’s purposely archaicized English, the Redcrosse Knight’s “Well mote yee thee” means “Well may you thrive.” The little epigraph thus suggests not only that language is inherently slippery, but that canonical authors in earlier periods also engaged in language play: according to the OED, thee, the diminutive of the Anglo Saxon theon, to thrive, was already obsolete by Spenser’s time. Meanwhile “thee” — the second-person singular pronoun meaning “you” — is now, in its turn, obsolete in standard common English. To read Motes is thus to cast off familiar habits and let the words (mots in French and thus directly in the title) open up to reveal their mysteries.
The first of the Opuscula reads:
“Shiver” contains the French word for winter, “hiver,” and the “s” that precedes it suggests the reflexive pronoun “se.” To shiver is to winter oneself. It makes perfect sense. Or again:
too much marmalade now
starting to turn green
When one is seasick, one’s stomach turns to jelly. It’s an old cliché. But no one would normally use the word “marmalade” in this context: marmalade is much more specific than jam, originally referring only to citrus fruit, and it doesn’t shake as does jelly. No one would say, “My stomach turned to marmalade.” But look again: marmalade contains the French word malade: ergo, too much illness now. In this context, turning green refers to the appearance of the seasick, but also to the cooking process or even to the ocean. And in a related “mote”:
frottage of fish grotto signage as
announcing the decline of the west —
The reference is to the signpost in front of a restaurant on the Berkeley marina, behind whose “frottage,” or dim image of a fish grotto, sunset is taking place. In Berkeley, even the sunset is taken seriously, representing, with a grandiose flourish, the decline of the West (Oswald Spengler’s title). But in the meantime, the intricate phonemic play (internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration) of “frottage of fish grotto signage” conjures up the image of a rare fish ragout served in the “grotto” of the restaurant.
Some of the motes are riddling anagrams, like:
split little puppet pulpits tilted spilling dew
The short title generates seven words characterizing the tulips in a mock alexandrine, the “dew” spilling out from those “puppet pulpits,” rhyming with the first syllable of “tulips” to make the organic process of decay and rebirth as graphic as possible. Or again, “thunderclouds” are characterized as “really loud under there,” the word itself yielding paragrams that describe the situation quite accurately.
Part 2, “Ayres,” contains a number of bird songs. Here are two “Crow” poems:
a flock of chalk-
white aging birds
flew by, coughing
at a watching sky
two crows over there
there’s a crowd now’s growing
from those fielding old seeds
Here the first little “ayre” depends on acoustic imagery: not only is the ugly crow sound reinforced by “coughing,” but “chalk-white” suggests the homonym “caulking” for “cawking,” and thus we both hear and see these crows! What can the sky do but “watch,” the rhyme “by” / “sky” bringing this elliptical lyric full circle. The second poem uses visual punning: two crows can be stretched to make a crow-d that’s “growing,” as it is seen to be “fielding” (the baseball term, plus “belong to the field”) those old seeds.
Where, in all this verbal play, is the “authentic” voice of the poet on display at venues like the White House workshop? How does the self emerge from Dworkin’s elaborate sound games? Reading Motes, the purported “impersonality” one would expect from these riddles or epigrams is illusory: there is a particular persona who speaks, one who can’t look at or hear a word without wanting to explore its insides and study its living relationships. For Dworkin that quest to unlock the word seems to be a special pleasure:
Explanation of butter on the counter overnight
Leave it out all night, and butter (margarine) has melted, losing the margin of its rectangular eight-ounce bar or perhaps running over the margin of the counter. The explanation makes sense, and look at what lovely sound it generates, with its anapestic rhythm and alliterative “t” patterns:
Explanátion of bútter on the coúnter overníght.
Indeed, Dworkin’s is a Jamesian aesthetic: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” If he sees the name “Vincent Van Gogh,” he focuses on the middle word “Van,” a variant on the German “Von,” originally designating aristocratic birth. But in everyday parlance, a van is, of course, a vehicle, and so by metonymic transfer, we move from “van” to the poem’s first word, “diligence,” the French stagecoach of the nineteenth century that, no doubt, took Van Gogh to Paris.
The free-associative and yet rule-generated lyric of Motes is part of a new congerie of conceptual lyrics younger poets are producing. A great venue has been the Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn, most of whose books are individually designed little pamphlets with artful paper covers and innovative typography. Consider Uljana Wolf’s False Friends (Falsche Freunde). Wolf is a young poet from Berlin who lives in the US with her American husband, poet Christian Hawkey, whose own Ventrakl (another Ugly Duckling book) is an elaborate serial poem on the nature of translation. The author’s note at the back of False Friends explains:
These DICHTionary poems (Dichtung is German for poetry) are based on lists of so-called “false friends” in German and English — words that look and/or sound similar in both languages, but differ in meaning. At any given moment, each of these words might be used with German in mind, or English, or both. Other times these “friends” do not appear explicitly in their poems but instead remain standing behind them with suitcases full of etymology and misread linguistic maps.
The picture is further complicated by the fact that the “DICHTionary poems” have been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky, one of the best translators of German poetry, who worked closely with Wolf to find the right nuance and idiom. We thus have “German-English” turned into English-English, with German bits sometimes pasted in. Take for example, Wolf’s “bad / bald / bet-t / brief”:
am anfang bald, und bald am ende wieder: unsere haare, und dazwischen sind sie nicht zu fassen, nicht in sich und nicht in griff zu kriegen, weder im guten noch im bad. stattdessen morgens zu berg (take a bet?) und nachts out of bed (siehe ad). Am besten hälst du sie als igel der hat noch jeden hare besiegt. Liegt aber eine strähne im brief, gar eine lange, halte sie unverfänglich an die wange.
In Wolf’s wronglish, as she calls her bilingual idiolect, the German title words migrate into their unrelated English counterparts, shifting grammar along the way and blowing apart the poet’s mock-meditation. The effect is that of travelling to a foreign country and not quite hearing the other. How can “soon” (adverb) be “bald” (adjective)? “bad” (adjective) a “bath” (noun)? “bet” (verb) a “bed” (noun)? Or “brief” (adjective) a “letter” to be mailed (noun)? Never mind, Wolf’s little love poem, concluding with a rhyme on “lange” (long) and “wange” (cheek), urges the lover, who may find a strand of hair in the letter, to press it sweetly to his cheek.
In Susan Bernofsky’s translation — or more accurately her adaptation — the poem reads like this:
In the beginning bald, bald at the end once more: in between, this hair is hard to grasp, tricky to pin it up or down, for better or for bed. standing on end instead (fake a bet?) and at night out of hand (see the ad). perhaps best to crop it hedgehog close: he always gets his hare. But should you find a strand within a letter, long or brief, press it sweetly to your cheek.
Bernofsky’s all-English version retains the German element in hidden form: “within a letter, long or brief,” for example,” the “brief” reappears, and “hair” becomes “hare” in the hedgehog fable. Once the stage is set for such adaptation, the possibilities multiply: in the “Variations” section at the back of the book, the poet Eugene Ostashevsky gives “bad bald bet-t brief” a further spin:
In the beginning hareless and unhared again in the end: our hare — even a dachshund can do nothing against it, neither by itself nor by wearing its war claws, neither in good weather nor while it rains cats and dogs. In the morning it pitches a tent (in bad) and at night it gambols in the bathtub like an advertent bettwetter. It fell out to have been bested and halted by an eagle, who then had to bear a hat to bear ahead because it became a bald eagle . . . what a bad hare day! In brief, it lay around here on the strand like an unopened ladder and gargled, can you catch the hare by the cheek, it can’t ear.
Thus Uljana Wolf’s little love poem, with its slide into English usage, gives Ostashevsky the impetus to produce his own “bad hare day.” His version eliminates the “pure” German, settling for the mongrelism of “bettwetter,” or substituting cliché for foreign locution: here it “rains cats and dogs”; our hare wears “war claws,” “pitches its tent,” and becomes a “bald eagle.” The strand of hair becomes the beach, the unopened “brief” a ladder. As for the “hare” (for hair) to be absurdly caught by the cheek, “it can’t ear.”
Such writing is often dismissed as mere game playing. Isn’t poetry supposed to be a noble pursuit, a way of expressing yourself and communicating with others, as the White House speakers suggest? Of finding your authentic voice? For decades now, the cult of expressivity has dominated — the belief that self-revelation will automatically become poetry if it is sufficiently sincere and earnest. Hence the endless drive to bring poetry to the prisons, poetry to the hospitals and nursing homes, as if simple desire could bring one to write “poems” others would want to read.
But suppose we regard “poetry” as the language art, parallel to the composition of music, the making of visual objects, or dance? However original the art work may be, there is a discipline to be learned: a discipline that cannot encompass personal effusions like “Belly Song” or “Those Were the Days,” or, for that matter, the magazine verse that now dominates the poetry scene. Forced feeding, as Frank O’Hara said, leads to excessive thinness! And in the Internet age, where we are at liberty to download such a plethora of texts — to reproduce them, recycle them, change their appearance by altering font, typeface, spacing, size — context and framing become the key elements. The poet’s role has become, in the literal sense, that of a word processor, finding how best to absorb, recharge, and redistribute the language that is already there.
Let me conclude with one of the most remarkable lyric sequences of recent years: Cia Rinne’s notes for soloists. Born in Sweden and raised in Germany before living for over a decade in Finland and then Denmark, Rinne moves easily between languages: in Notes her base is English, but an English laced with echoes of French, German, occasionally another language. The poem is both visual composition and sound text: recorded by Rinne and accompanying soloists with music and sound design by Sebastian Eskildsen in Copenhagen in 2011, this elaborate echo structure, with sounds ranging from gong to passing train, is available at PennSound.
Here is the visual configuration of the first two facing pages:
Cia Rinne, from notes for soloists.
When Robert Creeley wrote his “Numbers” series in the late 1960s, he did not decompose the words themselves; in notes for soloists, however, the number 1 quickly morphs into “one,” the German “ohne” (without), “oh no, ono” (as in Yoko), and then “on, o,” with the echo of “(oh no).” The next section treats the number 2 as the reversal of “one/on,” and “to” has its homonyms “two” and “too.” But it is the third section where things become complicated. Words beginning with “to” are broken so as to become infinitives. It begins low-key with cases where “to” is a separate syllable, as in “to tal,” “to lerance,” “to morrow,” and “to rah.” But then come diphthongs, first on “o” like “to ol,” but then on “oa” like “to aster,” and finally single-syllable words that give us “to p,” “to ss,” “to sh,” and at last, “to o,” bringing us back full circle to the first lyric, and hence zero.
Notes for soloists exhibits an extraordinary eye and ear for sound echo, homonym, and paragram. Even the days of the week, the “tou jours,” become interesting. And on the next page “N 29” is first taken apart as “No 2 9,” then spelled out to become “no two nine,” and finally transformed by homonym and German translation to “no to nein.” Or again, on the next page Rinne explores the effect of spacing:
Allow for a single space, and the meaning reverses. Rinne’s seems to me the perfect poem for the age of digital composition, when, as we know, every character and space makes a difference. Mistake a single letter, number, or punctuation mark, and you have altered what the text “says” beyond recognition. Moreover, omission or duplication has consequences: think of paying a bill of $67.50 online and omitting the decimal point. The Bank, as I know from experience, will not let you off easily. And neither, in the case of poetry, will a future audience.
What, in this new poetry, has happened to the authentic voice? Where is the expressive self of “Belly Song,” of “Ten Things I Want to Throw at You,” or of “Those Were the Days”? The fabled “sensitivity” of the Creative Writer gives way to a sensitivity to language that is almost like a fever — a sensitivity that has been the distinguishing mark of the poet from the Troubadours to George Herbert’s “The Windows” and Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism,” to Emily Dickinson’s “My Life has stood — A Loaded Gun — ” and Susan Howe’s “That This.” Indeed, in one sense the poetry of Dworkin or Wolf or Rinne is perfectly traditional. It merely seems new because in the early twenty-first century, the equation of poetry with self-expression has become so normative.
Perhaps, then, the copying exercises Kenneth Goldsmith talks about in his address to the White House workshop come at a moment when students badly need tools to make constructs more satisfying than their attempts to bare their unique souls. As Rinne puts it in “notes for censorship”:
cut out from books
destroy the book.
someone will notice
3. According to Goldsmith in conversation, his invitation came from Joe Reinstein, the deputy social secretary at the White House, who told him he had loved the art gallery installation of Goldsmith’s Soliloquy and must have long been familiar with Ubuweb. Reinstein is married to the Fluxus artist Hannah Higgins, whose mother is the well-known Fluxus performance artist Alison Knowles, who was invited together with Goldsmith, thus literally sneaking in the avant-garde by the back door of the White House.
4. For the transcript of the opening remarks, visit the White House Press Office.
5. Note that this and the subsequent White House poems and prose commentaries cited are reproduced from the video and transcripts of the actual White House event available online, not from manuscript or printed versions.
7. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (1922: London and New York: Routledge, 1988), §5.62; Wttgenstein’s Lectures, Cambridge 1930–32, ed. Desmond Lee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 112.
11. See Joseph Kosuth, “Art after Philosophy” (1969), in Kosuth, Art after Philosophy and After, Collected Writings 1966–1990 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 13–32; Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967): 79–83.
15. See, for example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for the current consensus on the importance of conceptual art.
18. For both the text and a reading by the poet, see Billy Collins, “Forgetfulness.”
21. Kenneth Goldsmith, No. 111 2.7.93–10.20.96 (Great Barrington, VT: The Figures, 1997). Embedded in the larger text, the Lawrence story (588–606) escapes notice and hence required no copyright permission.
22. See Marjorie Perloff, “The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall,” Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy (Tuscaloosa: University of Abalama Press, 2004), 205–26.
25. I found this translation by Googling various Spenser sites and finding the notes to the most recent editions of The Faerie Queene. In the Internet age, accessing such information, which might formerly have involved a trip to the research library, takes just minutes, and poetry students like the ones who came to the White House could readily learn to find the text in question. Purists object to this practice as being merely mechanical — the “researcher” need know nothing or little about Spenser’s poem — but it may just be possible that the search would generate interest in The Faerie Queene.
27. Christian Hawkey, Ventrakl (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010), unpaginated. See my review in Los Angeles Review of Books, 17 May 2011.
28. Uljana Wolf, False Friends, trans. Susan Bernofsky (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), last page of unpaginated book. Wolf’s reading of extracts from the related Jane poems may be heard on YouTube.