Unanimism and the crowd

Early modern social lyric

Joseph Pennell, drawing of Cambria steel works, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1917. Image from the Library of Congress.

Published in 1905, when Jules Romains was twenty years old, “Poetry and Unanimous Feelings”[1] launches one of his dominant themes: “unanimous,” or, as will be seen, “unanimistic” feelings. He will expand on the theme (theme-assemblage, really) over a lifetime, in poems, novels, plays, essays. To name, today, his articulation of the social and the aesthetic is a bit like trying to name a constellation’s mythological shape. The terms composing the constellation come from various discourses and have distinctly differentiated meanings and references: the crowd, sociality, the social, class, lumpen, group, mass, multitude, people, folk, gathering, audience, community, public, commune.… Connections between them can be made into more than one configuration. To favor one or even two would be to risk missing the fabled synonymy unifying them all. Is that Monoceros the unicorn in the sky there? A shape does emerge out of this heterogeneity when the terms are juxtaposed by one opposing phrase: nineteenth-century individual lyrical expression. Romains’s “doctrine” (as detractors called it) intended to unzip “the individual” into the social relations that compose it.

Crowds against death!

I repeat, it’s time.[2]

Romains considered a momentous twentieth-century discovery to be that society constitutes the individual through collectivities — a discovery on the order of nature to that of the eighteenth century.[3] Evidently, Romains likes to make lucid statements out of generalities (centuries); to continue in this spirit, his premise in this respect is a neoclassical one, that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The whole in fact is so much greater than its parts that Romains coined a word for it, unanimism, and unanimism is optimistic about a quality perceived in group behavior, unanimity. Every group acquires, consciously or not, a contingent but determinate identity which he calls its specific unanim.

It will be a group of profound things welding together at once, a crescendo of ideas, each spontaneous and all of them moving in the same direction, like the spectacular rise of smoke that city factories deploy at the same hour.[4]

But unlike Imagisme, Unanimisme suggests that a whole is expressible not through particulars (the natural object is not quite the adequate symbol, as Pound said it was; ideas are not “in” things, as Williams hoped they were; the universal is not “in” the concrete, as USAmerican particularists — philosophers, poets, theorists, etc. — have variously argued); instead, like an ur-Poundian ideogrammic method, a whole emerges from relations between things, beings, ideas, effects equally.

An early US review characterized Romains’s unanimism as producing “sociological poetry.”[5] More recently, Rosalind Williams conceives of unanimism to be a “poetics of urban systems” of la vie sociale. A “system,” she says, may be comprised of interconnecting (of no longer dichomotized) organic and machinic relations in any environment, such as a street corner that today might consist of electric lights, oil spots, closed-circuit TVs, intersecting roadways, litter, dog poop, crows, storefronts, weeds, automobiles, sewer hole, iPods, and pedestrians. A unanim will show degrees of collective self-consciousness and institutional stability: poetry reading, coffee shop, cultural or political event, company, church, army, city, nation state. Romains writes that “unanims are more unstable, more supple, more capable of metamorphoses, of intermixing, of birth, of death than are our invariable and rigid selves.”[6] The writer’s task is to help create unanims, and group consciousness about existing unanims.

Romains’s booklength poem La vie unanime (1908) creates out of Paris a unanim with an “immortal fluency” its citizens can become aware of and help to articulate:

The city knows its dead are transmissions.
People, tonight, dying in it
simply render, by painful starts
what little they’ve captured of its immortal fluency.

They’ve grasped it as best they could in the knots
of their laryngeal systems; but tonight, they let go.
While they moan, young bodies go electric
with the vibration made by bodies underground.[7]

The dead and the dying are also able to participate in raising collective awareness of the unanimistic vibe.

Unanimism holds a special place in Jean-Michel Rabaté’s argument to historicize globalization through turn-of-the-century imperialisms, the rise of finance capital, and the First World War. Rabaté suggests that unanimism was just as significant to early modernism as was futurism and cubism, and that in French modernist avant-gardes it polarized Apollinaire (for whom the avant-garde must focus solely on the medium of expression) and Romains (for whom the avant-garde also has a role of shocking into awareness). Romains’s widespread influence in European early modernist art, music, and literature is taken up also by Christopher Butler, while still others have examined specific unanimistic effects on texts by Joyce (the “wandering rocks” section in Ulysses), Woolf (The Waves), Pound (who acknowledged Romains’s effort to reinvent Greek epic chorus structure), Toomer (Cane), Waldo Frank (City Block), and Québec poet Jean Aubert Loranger (Les atmosphères), and on paintings by cubists, including Leger and Gleizes, and Italian futurists, including Boccioni (including his technical manifesto) and Carrà, among others. Critics have yet to consider the unanimism at play in other literary texts, such as Melvin B. Tolson’s midcentury Libretto for the Republic of Liberia. Romains’s mythological shape may also be broadly discerned in a constellation of contemporary texts that address social structures and collective identity, such as Renee Gladman’s The Activist, Carla Harryman’s The Gardener of Stars, Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation, Allen Fisher’s “crowd-out” texts, as well as in Teresa Brennan’s theory of the psychic transmission of affects, Hardt and Negri’s “social flesh” of “the multitude,” among numerous other theorists branching off from the group-consciousness-think of Freud and Durkheim (whom Romains called the Descartes of unaninism).[8] In popular culture, the French film Delicatessen (1991) might be said to create an apartment building unanim. One unanimistic technique the film uses is a montage of scenes that repeats a rhythm unwittingly orchestrated by the squeaky bedsprings of a love-making couple: in back-and-forth movements of a worker roller-painting a ceiling, in a cello student practicing scales to a metronome, in a tenant manually pumping a bicycle tire, in a woman beating out carpet dust with a paddle, in fingers’ rapid movements with knitting needles.

A still from Delicatessen (1991)

Paradoxically, Romains wasn’t interested in creating a purely literary school or movement, not least one focused on technological novelty and analogy (to telephone, to radio, to airplane, to machine gun, etc.).[9] By 1911–12, unanimism supporter Georges Duhamel could comment easily that literary schools were being founded every week.[10] While Romains certainly wrote about unanimism as a rallying rubric for French writers of his generation, and was loosely associated with the Abbaye de Créteil group who were experimenting with communal living in order to write and to publish (their first publication was Romains’s La vie unanime), the very nature of unanimism would seem to prevent it becoming a strictly literary endeavour controlled by one platform or by one individual or group. Instead of another manifesto, Romains wanted to articulate all the new forms of social relation in modern city life.[11] In a sense, this included the manifesto itself as a phenomenon. A manifesto, political or aesthetic, is often a performative claim made upon group consciousness (usually a manifesto has more than one signatory). The manifesto is a “crowd” mode of rhetorical address whose goal is to change another crowd-composition to which the status quo has become habituated. Romains takes self-referentially performative aspects of manifesto form and turns them into unanimism’s content: collective identity itself, group formation as such. Romain wanted to create group consciousness and to make others aware of what they were already collectively doing unconsciously, incidentally, expressly.

But to what end, unanims? Unanims must by definition also include socially conservative and reactionary group expressions — those that might emerge from nationalist chauvinism as much as from anti-statism, and so on. The extent to which Romains’s theory and writing could constructively respond to the politics of groups seems limited. Unlike Eliot’s oeuvre — think Prufrock — Romains’s expresses an optimism about socially complex, modern city living. But like Pound (with whom, incidentally, he shares birth and death years, 1885–1972), the crises of the 1930s bring out another side to Romains’s theory. Even as PEN president, Romains’s unanimism racializes European identity as white, in what might be called a spirit of “goodwill racism” (goodwill is key to his conception of unanims as the title of his twenty-seven-volume novel, Les hommes de bonne volonté, makes plain). Without Pound’s enduring emotion in The Cantos of trolling paranoid vituperativeness and literary haughtiness, which repels (and paradoxically shields) his reader from the worst of his text, Romains’s teacherly tone of disarmingly intimate sincerity in the poetry book L’homme blanc (1937) is all the more discomfitting. Aimé Césaire buries (“buries” is his figure) unanimism by noting how in the 1950 French edition of Salsette découvre l’Amérique Romains’s use of a unanimistic technique — that of repeated implication-by-association in order to form a whole — oppresses.[12]

Certainly at other times Romains was aware of the “destructiveness of the crowd,” to use Canetti’s key phrase.[13] During the Great War Romains wrote Europe, a booklength poem lamenting the destructive powers of unanims (army; nation; hero) gone awry — and predictably his response is to appeal to an even larger unanim than that of warring nation-states, indefensible (as Césaire would call it) Europe. The poem’s closing two lines — quoted above — appear groundlessly hopeful in the context of the poem.

To not only articulate a unanim, but talk one down — the witch camps in rural northern Ghana (what are the poets in Ghana doing these days?) — or talk one up — the use of a repeated proceduralism that “unanimizes” a semantic field’s disparate references (something poets in Canada and the US are doing these days) — that is the groundless hope. We are all the martyr Ibrahim Qashoush.



1. Translations mine throughout essay. My translation of Romains’s manifesto appears in the “Manifestos Now!” issue (guest editor Brian Ganter) of The Capilano Review 3, no. 13 (Winter 2011): 46–48. Romains’s “Les sentiments unanimes et la poésie” first appeared in Le Penseur 4 (April 1905): 121–24. Reprinted in Claude Martin’s Correspondance: André Gide — Jules Romains (Paris: Flammarion, 1976), 152–54, and in Bonner Mitchell’s critical edition of selected French manifestos, Les manifestes littéraires de la belle époque, 1866–1914: Anthologie critique (Paris: Seghers, 1966), 81–86.

2. Jules Romains, Europe, 2nd ed. (Paris: NRF, 1919), 85.

3. Romains is cited in Rosalind Williams, “Jules Romains, Unanimisme, and the Poetics of Urban Systems,” in Literature and Technology, Research in Technology Studies, vol. 5, ed. Mark L. Greenberg and Lance Schachterle (London: Associated University Presses, 1992), 193–94.

4. Jules Romains, “L’unanimisme et Paul Adam,” Revue littéraire de Paris et de Champagne 2, no. 42 (September 1906): 284.

5. Allan Antliff details the influence of Romains’s “sociological poetry” on the Modern School movement in the U.S., in “Interpellating Modernity: Cubism and ‘La vie unanime’ in America,” in American Modernism Across the Arts, ed. Jay Bochner and Justin D. Edwards (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 53–72.

6. Jules Romains, “La chevelure inextricable,” in Revue littéraire de Paris et de Champagne 2, no. 43 (October 1906), 352–53.

7. Jules Romains, La vie unanime (Paris: Mercure de France, 1913), 231–32.

8. Jean-Michael Rabaté, 1913: The Cradle of Modernism (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007); Christopher Butler, Early Modernism: Literature, Music, and Painting in Europe, 1900–1916 (Oxford UP, 1994); Renee Gladman, The Activist (San Francisco, CA: Krupskaya, 2003); Carla Harryman, The Gardener of Stars (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2001; Juliana Spahr, The Transformation (Berkeley, CA: Atelos, 2007); Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004). For an introduction to poet-artist Allen Fisher on “decoherence and crowd-out,” see the newsletter and supplement for PhillyTalks 19: Allen Fisher and Karen Mac Cormack (17 October 2001), with responses by Marjorie Welish, Matt Hart, Rob Holloway, housed at Slought Foundation Online.

9. Romains’s essay in Mitchell’s Les manifestes littéraires de la belle époque, 1866–1914: Anthologie critique (see note 1) is productively sandwiched between symbolist, futurist, socialist, humanist, “naturist,” classicist, and other manifestos published in France. Unanimisme is absent, however, from Mary Ann Caws’s international anthology even as it is three times the size of Mitchell’s, Manifesto: A Century of Isms (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001). Unanimisme’s absence might speak to its questionable relationship to the idea of literary language as such — and therefore to the polarization between Apollinaire and Romains that Rabaté conceives as structuring French early modernism. “The limitation of Romains’ work, as of a deal of Browning’s,” Pound writes, “is that, having once understood it, one may not need or care to re-read it. This restriction applies also in a wholly different way to [Keats’s] “Endymion” [… and …] applies to all poetry that is not implicit in its own medium, that is, which is not indissolubly bound in with the actual words, word music, the fineness and firmness of the actual writing, as in Villon […].” See Pound, Instigations (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), 74.

10. Georges Duhamel, “Petit tableau des écoles poétiques,” Les Poètes et la Poésie, 1912–1913 (Paris: Mercure de France, 1914), 109–19.

11. Rosalind Williams, see 179n3.

12. Like Pound as well, Romains developed an over-inflated sense of his own social importance: in, for instance, the essays of Seven Mysteries of Europe (1940), he narrates himself into imagined key moments of European history before the Second World War, as advisor to French politicians and as a diplomat of peace. In fact, Romains supported the Munich Pact. Aimé Césaire lambastes Romains’s Salsette découvre l’Amérique in Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham, intr. Robin D. G. Kelley (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 51.

13. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart (Toronto: Collins, 1984), 19.


A walk through texts

(click image or here to be taken to WANDERKAMMER)

Docupoetry and archive desire

Two pages from Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press).

“I can see no reason for calling my work poetry except that there is no other category in which to put it.” — Marianne Moore[1]

In 2000, the poet Jena Osman created a lengthy list of “docupoetry” that included poems such as Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Adrienne Rich’s “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” and William Carlos William’s Paterson, as well as many works less familiar to American readers.[2] Nowadays, such a list could be twice as long — we are in the midst of something of a flourishing of documentary literary forms. Usually “docupoetry” designates poetry that (1) contains quotations from or reproductions of documents or statements not produced by the poet and (2) relates historical narratives, whether macro or micro, human or natural. Clearly, such writing is part of a long tradition; without even going back to Virgil or Lucretius, one can see that the poems of Pope and Dryden had everything to do with documenting (with a very definite point of view).

But the general trend, from the Romantic era onwards, has been towards understanding poetry as an art form that expresses the current thoughts and emotions of the individual, without documenting the past experience of collectivities. As early as 1798, Frederich Schlegel writes, “Romantic poetry embraces everything that is purely poetic, … [O]ne might believe that it exists solely to characterize poetic individuals of all types.” “Romantic poetry” is, in a word, “poetry itself.”[3] In another piece, he declares that “[t]he true object of the art should be, instead of resting in externals, to lead the mind upwards into a more exalted region and a spiritual world.” Thus a poetry of externals, of historical fact, of groups rather than individuals, is a contradiction in terms for the Romantic poet.[4] Coleridge expresses a similar sentiment when he opposes “those events, which in real or imagined History move on in a strait Line” to “the end of all … Poems,” which is to make history “assume to our Understandings a circular motion — the snake with its Tail in its Mouth”[5] — that irritable reaching after facts here transmuted into the mysterious, eternal, and symbolic. The fact that none of this prevented the Romantics from writing poems about history, politics, or biography is beside the point. What is important is that this conception of poetry (and art generally) meshed quite comfortably with the domestication of Romanticism into respectable bourgeois literature in the mid-nineteenth century. As I have argued elsewhere, it is this version of poetry that remained dominant in US culture into the twentieth century.[6]

But the twentieth century also saw the emergence of both the documentary film and of what might properly be termed a documentary poetry — that is, a poem including history by including “business documents and schoolbooks,” as Marianne Moore famously put it. Much of the work of modern poets as diverse as Ezra Pound, Muriel Rukeyser, Archibald MacLeish, Williams, and Moore can be placed in the tradition of this “nonfiction” poetry. Some critics responded to the rise of documentary poetry in the 1930s by reinvoking the putative split between literary and nonliterary documents, between poetry and “reportage.” For instance, one critic in the New York Herald-Tribune books section wrote, of Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, “While it contains some brilliant journalism, and sections of it … are poetry of a high order, the sequence is … overfreighted with document.”[7] Journalism is one thing, poetry quite another; documents belong in the former, but the latter collapses under their weight. The documentary lost some of its luster (as did the left-leaning politics that motivated much of it) in the late 1940s and 1950s; as the New Criticism and academic formalism in poetry became the official styles of the day in the United States, documentary poetry was made to seem a contradiction in terms. Williams’s long poem Paterson was one of the few docupoems produced in the period.[8] In 1951, Hayden Carruth noted its frequent prose passages, particularly their content: “They are documentary — letters, newspaper clippings, medical records, and the like. … But,” he wondered, “[c]an a poem survive in the public mind which contains so much unquotable — that is, unrememberable — material?”[9] Likewise, Randall Jarrell asked, “What has been done to [the excerpts] to make it possible for us to respond to them as art and not as raw reality? to make them part of the poem ‘Paterson’? I can think of no answer except: They have been copied out on the typewriter.”[10] Raw reality is one thing, art, quite another. Implied here is the New Critical assumption that the poem is and ought to be considered as an organic whole, with no undigested elements; moreover, all of it should be the original product of the individual imagination; and it must cohere on the page, quite apart from biography or history. Williams’s documenting of the history of Paterson has no intrinsic bearing on the poem Paterson. For it to be a Poem, according to Jarrell’s and Carruth’s account, there must be no mixing.[11] 

Things are easier for documentary poetry (not to mention film) nowadays than in the 1950s. The documentary impulse in US poetry has become more widespread, and it is difficult to find denunciations of it in print. However, when I queried well-known poets who work with documents, as well as critics who study docupoetry, the consensus was that the dichotomy of poetry versus [documents, journalism, history] persists, albeit more in speech than in writing. For instance, Mark Nowak, author of Coal Mountain Elementary, encounters it “ALWAYS in Q&A’s at readings. The question is usually phrased something like this: ‘So your work is very political, does great political work. But what about the craft of poetry? Do you care about craft?’”[12] — the assumption being that, not only is docupoetry necessarily a poetry of political advocacy, but that such work is de facto artless. Craig Santos Perez, author of the from unincorporated territory series about Guåhan/Guam, receives comments that assume an opposition between poetry writing and history writing: “you should just write a history book because people would actually read it; the poetry makes the historical narrative hard to read; the history drains the poetic energy.”[13] And so on.

From Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press) [click to enlarge].

Similarly, George Szirtes writes in the October 2007 issue of Poetry magazine that “The truths the poem deals with are not evidentiary truths. … They do not lead back to the real life outside the poem: their truths refer to the real life inside the poem”[14] — to which Phil Metres responds at the Poetry Foundation site, “The documentary poem opposes Szirtes’s idea of a closed system, inviting ‘the real life outside the poem’ into it while also offering readers a journey into the poem.”[15] Szirtes claims that Metres mischaracterized his remarks; but later in the same article, Szirtes writes:

The life that moves in poems has enormous sharpness because it has been distilled into such a state that it is no longer possible to distinguish the universal from the particular in it. The real life in poems comes at us with the sudden clear cry of particularity as any phenomenon might, but it does not conduct us into the world of cause and effect, the world of biography. Biography is secondary to history, and history is secondary to those brilliant moments of perception that mere existence makes possible.[16]

As in Schlegel’s day, poetry is the pure essence of experience, not the gross dross of events (whether the event is overcooking a pot roast or participating in a civil rights march). The point of Poetry is to get us away from the world of causality — from the obduracy of the historical documents — into the brilliant, distilled ether of “mere existence.”

Poet Nada Gordon presents a more explicit denunciation of docupoetry, from a rather different angle, in “On Docu-Poetry: A Febrile Meditation,” a February 2009 post on her blog Ululations. She writes that docupoetry is “grasping for mimesis and reportage at the expense of verbal imagination,” and that she “feel[s] in it a kind of shoehorning of didactic social message into poetic forms that have no intrinsic connection to, or maybe add no value to, the often compelling and important narratives that are being conveyed in these pieces. Maybe the added value is entry into the still privileged aura of the category of ‘poetry.’” She sees a mismatch “between the flat reportage of the information and the form of verse itself, whose very lines serve as little spotlights to the lexis and the syntax.” Docupoetry necessarily entails “a kind of deadness of the already decided[,] the foregone conclusion,” Gordon writes. “[W]hen I think about what docu-poetry is not, I think of Keats [who writes with a] form so organic to the content and content so organic to the form that really there is no duality.” Verbal imagination, literary form (writ large), and “aura,” are inherent characteristics of Poetry. Mimesis, didacticism, and “the social” per se, are the proper domain of reportage (and therefore not proper to Poetry). This is because true poetry is written in forms that are “organic,” which is to say “intrinsic” to poetry, which is by definition where one finds verbal imagination, because poetry’s interest is in form. One might be forgiven for reading this line of thought as another instance of Coleridge’s snake with its tail in its mouth — a closed circle that defines itself, and thereby lends poetry its “privileged aura.” Gordon admits that she’s “being categorical, and that’s a problem.” But the fact that a poet of Gordon’s stature would reinscribe these ideas indicates that they still have some purchase in the twenty-first century. Indeed, I suspect that she is writing what others only say or think.

While I have no doubt that Gordon was suffering from a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract as she says in the post (hence “Febrile Meditation”), I also suspect she was experiencing an even more widespread malady as well — one that afflicts us all — the one Jacques Derrida termed “archive fever” (mal d’archive).[17] For Derrida, archive fever denotes the mania to define what’s in and what’s out. “But where does the outside commence? This,” Derrida asserts, “is the question of the archive. There are undoubtedly no others” (8). The job of the archivist is not only to prevent documents from leaving the archive, but, perhaps more importantly, to keep out those that don’t belong there. This is, of course, a political decision that involves repression and destruction, even as it involves preservation. Thus the Gnostic gospels wind up in the rubbish heaps of Nag Hammadi because the keepers of the archive — the archons, those in command (in this case abbots and bishops) — deemed them outside of the canon of biblical texts, and therefore outside of the archive. Or worse, “Aryan” books are published, and “Semitic” books consigned to the flames. Archive fever is thus the arch form of “being categorical.” So for Derrida, it isn’t just a problem — it is the problem. Archive fever “verges on radical evil” — hence the double meaning of the mal of the title (20).

But how to avoid it? Is it even possible? On Derrida’s account, “archive” is a very broad category indeed, and so there are many archives; we could even say that genre is a type of archive (perhaps even the type of the archive). And Gordon nails the problem of the archive when she complains about the “oppressive kind of mawkish ‘poetry framing’” of what she considers properly nonfiction materials, on the grounds that “it just sounds like a lot of interesting information has been LEFT OUT.” For Derrida, archivization is the process of leaving out, via “the disposition of a legitimate hermeneutic authority” (3) — authority to name, classify, anthologize, teach, publish, fund — or not. Archivization in this sense produces the frame “Poetry” (over against “nonfiction” or “reportage,” for instance). Framing is all about leaving out (and in). The frame, the parergon, on Derrida’s reading, functions as a paregoric — it soothes by reassuring that everything is in its place.[18]

But how does such authority become legitimate? If poetry is a valid category because genre is a valid category, then, as Derrida asks elsewhere, “what is the genre of genre?”[19] What category does the category belong to, which gives it its authority? Alas, “the structure of the archive is spectral. It is … a trace always referring to another” — to the king, to the king’s father’s father, or to the trace of the trace of him (84). For this reason, “poetry” does not inhere in any text, nor can any text be unproblematically mimetic. It must appeal outside itself in order to “speak” — must appeal to the arke, conceived of, on the one hand, as origin (in the sense of either the spectral past or the really real thing-in-itself) or, on the other hand, as Law (and by extension, those in a position to define and maintain boundaries — whether it’s the Commerce Department, Microsoft, or The Father per se).

And it is precisely for this reason that would-be docupoets need to heed Gordon’s point about the exclusion of information. If poetry is an archive, then so too is a poem — or any text — and the writer is a kind of archivist. The familiar generic parameters that I have outlined here make this issue an especially important one for those who would include documents in poetry. Which documents? And why not include them at all? Why include these “business documents and schoolbooks” and exclude others? By what authority does the documentary poet (howsoever poetical s/he might be) decide why the front and back covers delimit the book? It seems to me that poetry, precisely because of the generic conventions historically associated with it, forces the docupoet to confront these questions. Otherwise, one produces the very kind of poetry Gordon decries — one that unconsciously represses part of the record without altering our experience of either the record or of repression.

From Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife (Essay Press) [click to enlarge].

As we know, all of us engage in forms of linguistic repression and exclusion (if one says “collector,” one does so by repressing the visually similar and not unrelated word “corrector”).[20] And some documentary poetry makes repression a priority — that is, it attempts to weed out the heterogeneous, the digressive, the transgressive and contradictory in order to tell a predetermined, linear narrative. In other words, there is, as Gordon suggests, plenty of flat, predictable, sententious, boring docupoetry (just as there is plenty of repetitive, precious, pretentious, boring “experimental” lyric).

However, I would submit that by focusing on these issues, a documentary poetry can turn the problem to account. Not only by awareness of the death drive (i.e., the suppression of the Other, not least of all within the archive itself), but also by focusing on — by enjoying — the libidinal energy that drives the poet’s researches in the first place, an energy Derrida terms “archive desire.” Archive desire is the flip side of archive fever.

“Why am I doing this?” One answer is surely that given by British historian and memoirist Carolyn Steedman: “the practice of history in its modern mode is, in one view, just one long exercise of the deep satisfaction of finding things.”[21] Derrida, in speaking of Freud’s writings — and the Freud archive — declares, “These classical and extraordinary works move away from us at great speed, in a continually accelerated fashion. They burrow into the past at a distance more and more comparable to that which separates us from archaeological digs.” (18). As a result, “The archivist produces more archive, and that is why the archive is never closed” (68). It burrows downwards and opens outward in a million directions, ramifications, racinations. This is precisely the impulse Maria Damon finds in poet and artist Adeena Karasick’s piece “The Wall” (2000), with its “fractured, bubbly, compendiousness.”[22] Damon appreciates its “archival aliveness, its anarchival, rhizomic exuberance” (97) that is “vibrant with both regally official document and semiodetritus” (90). These phrases provide a vibrant, exuberant description of archive desire in action. Archive desire is, in effect, the burning and generative desire to chase the boundaries of the archive itself — whether to catch them or to drive them off. And those boundaries are generic, as well as thematic.[23] In other words, a self-consciously archival or documentary poetry might interrogate itself — cop to its own violence and bad faith — while at the same time owning and reveling in the imaginative desire that drives it. Doing so may mean not simply mixing documentary writing and poetic writing, but instead rejecting the categories “documentary” and “poetry” altogether — or at least, recataloging them.

One possible guide in this process is Walter Benjamin’s innovative writing of historical traces, in such texts as “One-Way Street” and the Arcades Project. The latter, in particular, in terms of the phantasmagoric expansion of documents, observations and ideas about a particular city during a few decades, resembles a sort of nonfiction version of Ulysses, except that it is not as small. That is, the Arcades is not a codex with fixed front and back covers, but an ever-expanding, ever deepening archive that can only cease at the archivist’s death (though even beyond that point, Benjamin scholars and imitators have, in effect, continued to ramify and expand it). As Damon puts it, the Arcades “manages to be both fragmentary and exhaustive: exhaustiveness and excess here imply unfinishability.”[24] There is always another faubourg out beyond the last, always another ruin awaiting discovery below the last. And Benjamin delights in finding (and arranging) them all.

But for Benjamin, unlike Derrida, the destructiveness of archivization can be a vital, revolutionary act — and one that points up the hyperdestructive nature of modernity itself. Not only are most items about and from nineteenth-century Paris excluded from the Arcades, but those that are included are the result of a kind of violence. To write history, for Benjamin, “means to cite history. It belongs to the concept of citation, however, that the historical object in each case is torn from its context.”[25] And, as Marjorie Perloff has pointed out, Benjamin recontextualizes citations in a form that resembles nothing so much as a hypertext.[26] This method of presenting history is at loggerheads with traditional historical narration, which, Benjamin believes, chooses its citation or exhibit only “to reinsert the object into the [narrative] continuum, which it would create anew through empathy” (475). That is, the bourgeois historians of the nineteenth century, like its novelists, created an absorptive reading experience — one that recreated the past through empathy, continuity, and verisimilitude, thereby erasing its tracks, its interested nature. “The history that showed things ‘as they really were’ was the strongest narcotic of the [nineteenth] century” (463). “Materialist historiography,” by contrast, “does not choose its object arbitrarily. It does not fasten on them but rather springs them loose from the order of succession” — thereby forcing the reader to confront her or his received notions about succession and order (475).

Like Derrida, Benjamin would focus on the marginalia, the footnoted event, the overlooked bit of detritus that didn’t make it into the official archive. “I shall purloin no valuables,” Benjamin famously declares. “But the rags, the refuse — these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them” (460). It is only by self-consciously making use of them, engaging in poiesis, that the historian can creatively turn the archive inside out. “The most essential parts of this work … are turned most intensively to the outside”: even a casual riffling through the Arcades will give one a sense of how determinately it is turned to the outside, even while incorporating ever more of it (456). Benjamin’s is a voracious, ex-static, and expanding archive, because “[a] chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.”[27] This is the ne plus ultra of archive desire — an understanding of the receding horizon that is the boundary of the archive, followed by the desire to chase it and to drive it as far as it will go.

By the same token, the longstanding generic dichotomy between poetry and documentary is based not only on a normative conception of poetry, but also on a rather static and reductive notion of documentary. Documentary forms, ever since their rise in the twentieth century, have been accused of being too determined, didactic, manipulative, and as being premised on a rather naive form of mimesis. On this view, documentarians purport to present us with the unvarnished real — an accurate record of the object under consideration — and they are (therefore) rank propagandists. However, as critic Jeff Allred points out, by examining individual documentary texts from the 1930s, we see in fact that there were photographers, writers and filmmakers working in this form who used it not just to “present a reality out there,” but to reflect upon the form itself — to make use of the mediated nature of the document, and to cut against generic expectations.[28] This “documentary modernism” deploys “the ‘document’ as a trace of the real, a ‘resident alien’ in the house of culture whose presence in the text destabilizes relationships between reality and representation, self and other, reader and text.”[29] A text such as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men can produce what Allred calls, after Adam Tractenberg, “plausible fictions of the real” — precisely because it is self-conscious of its textuality and thereby relinquishes any dubious claims to be either a direct presentation of the real or even to account for a given object of inquiry. But if “creative nonfiction,” like traditional history-writing, creates a fiction of the real by drawing you in, absorbing you in the verisimilitude of the (true) story (with all the ideological implications of that process), this “documentary modernism” creates it by continuously reminding you of the fictional, constructed nature of even the most seamless or positivist narrative. This approach is familiar in the form of montage in film — that is, the use of the blatant fiction of simultaneity to represent a larger field of action than the single shot can present. Nowadays, the term “poetic documentary” is a common one in film to designate work that relates narratives based on historical particulars, while also foregrounding the filmmaker’s art and calling attention to the medium itself.

From Kaia Sand’s Remember to Wave (Tinfish Press) [click to enlarge].

I am struck by the similarity of this type of documentary and that of much so-called documentary poetry today — if you call it poetry — and if you call it documentary.[30] There is indeed a growing body of work that manages to “spotlight lexis and syntax” in the very process of relating “compelling and important narratives” of biographical and historical events. For instance, here are some twenty-first-century additions to Osman’s list of docupoems, focusing on writing in various experimental/innovative/investigate forms:

Kazim Ali, Bright Felon
Dan Beachy-Quick, Whaler’s Dictionary
Anne Carson, Nox
Allison Cobb, Green-Wood
Stephen Collis, On the Material
Brenda Coultas, A Handmade Museum and The Marvellous Bones of Time
Amy England, Victory and Her Opposites
C. S. Giscombe, Prairie Style
Gabriel Gudding, Rhode Island Notebook
Susan Howe, The Midnight (and others)
Bhanu Kapil, Humanimal
Khaled Mattawa, Tocqueville
Mark Nowak, Shut Up Shut Down and Coal Mountain Elementary
Kathleen Ossip, The Cold War
Jena Osman, The Network
Craig Santos Perez, from unincorporated territory series
M. NourbSe Philp, Zong!
Kristin Prevallet, I, Afterlife
Kaia Sand, Remember to Wave
Susan M. Schultz, Dementia Blog
Eleni Sikelianos, The Book of Jon
Tony Trigilio, Historic Diary
Rachel Zolf, Masque

Needless to say, this list is by no means exhaustive, and one could add to it on a weekly basis.

While all of these texts include representational modes of writing, it is difficult to read them as embodying the naive mimetic rendering of fact that critics have traditionally taken as the “other” of poetry; they go out of their way to call attention to what is included and what is excluded — what is known and what can’t be known — to the seams, gaps, and collapses between and within what the poet has discovered in the record and the poet’s response to those discoveries. Indeed, such responses can become quite nonrepresentational.[31] In these respects, much contemporary docupoetry demands a nonabsorptive reading: to the extent that it tells “the story of history,” it does so with a heavy dose of skepticism of, and creativity toward, the framing of “facts” (particularly official ones) and even narratives per se — especially those that purport to be true. Thus, precisely through exploiting the generic scandal of “documentary poetry,” this body of work produces a perspective, response, and critique that neither a personal, expressive (or purely ludic and aleatory) poetry nor a scholarly historical account could provide. In these senses, the new docupoetry diverges sharply from the institutions of “poetry” — and documentary, too. It uses verse on occasion, often verse that is very linguistically inventive and affecting. But these books don’t stick to that mode, or to any. They may be loosely structured around a particular narrative, but that narrative is interrupted and informed by others that are disparate in scale, time, topic, or style. The archive called poetry often willfully (and painfully) clashes with other archives, in these books. This is poetry in the sense in which Moore means it, in the epigraph to this essay: a noncategory category, the category that contains the cast-off material from other genres; the ever-receding archaic ground of “to make.” What do you make of it? What use can you make of it? Like Benjamin’s literary rag-picking, these “docupoems,” as poems, are always oriented towards the outside.

And I learned from reading them. That is what “to document” originally meant (in both English and Latin): to teach. Ditto for “didactic” (via Greek, this time). The uncomfortable relation between documentation and didacticism would cause the (didactic) conservators of generic integrity to consign both to the nonpoetic rag-heap, to define documentary as indoctrination. They thus narrow not only the meaning of poetry, but also the meaning and methods of teaching. On my reading, this view of both pedagogy and poetics owes more to the spirit of literary anti-leftist reactions of the 1930s to the 1950s (and its post-Reagan revenants) than it does to any inherent or transcendent indwelling nature in a particular configuration of marks on a page. To believe that genres are inherent within texts — that genres are genetic — while losing sight of their meandering historical careers, is to wander into precisely the place that the anti-didactic artistic free agent would avoid — namely, the invisible archive of ideology (or rather, ideology as invisible archive).

From Eleni Sikelianos’s The Book of Jon (City Lights) [click to enlarge].

Coda: The CNP unmanifesto.

Is documentary poetry a subgenre of, or a current within, the larger genre of poetry?

Who cares.

Or: does such writing even need to partake of “the privileged aura of ‘Poetry’” in order to work? “It’s good for what it is, but is it poetry?” could be flipped on its head: “It may or may not be poetry, but is it good for what it is?” — or, better yet, “at what it does.”

It doesn’t follow the generic conventions of creative nonfiction either. The term “lyric essay” would seem to bridge the gap between genres, but the emphasis is still on “essay” — and the term “lyric” is, for many in the poetry world, a rather freighted one. Moreover, as Rob Nixon writes, “‘lyric essay’ sounds a bit too fusty (Wordsworth meets Hazlitt) to breach the battlements of twenty-first-century technologies.”[32]

Rather than simply term these texts poetry because we can think of no other category in which to put them, I hereby unveil another generically undecidable nongenre genre: “Creative Nonpoetry.” Like creative nonfiction, creative nonpoetry defines itself over-against a genre which historically has refused its content, but which it often resembles quite a bit. Creative Nonpoetry borrows and burrows from the traditional conventions of the poetic; or mashes them up; or disclaims them altogether, by turns. It can contain verse, prose, dialogue, pictures.

Anyone who says poets should write a “poetry of witness,” or should document the Real or “the social,” is not talking about creative nonpoetry; nor is the hermetic neo-Symbolist lyricist who insists that art should have nothing to do with “events.”

Creative Nonpoetry is creative because it does not limit itself to either the poetry or the “non” — the writer (the creative nonpoet) may believe it to be “based on a true story”; the writer may take a skeptical stance towards (some of) that material — or declare an unreasoning faith in it. It is nonpoetry in the sense that it decreases the distance between writing history and poetry, while experimenting with the received forms of both (at the same time and by the same token). It lets the purists of both Poetry and Documentary off the hook, while opening up new possibilities for those of us who aren’t invested in genres for genre’s sake. It is a category for writing that does not fit into categories. It gives publishers a (New!) label to put on the back cover and bookstores a place to put strange texts.

In other words, “creative nonpoetry” is a way of describing what actually-existing poetry has become in the US, over the last twenty years or so — an indeterminate space where the histories of genres clash, combine, morph, or dissolve. A space, let us say it, of creative freedom, in which genre becomes an historical tool to employ, reject, or add to — just as “history” is understood as history writing. Indeed, it is not surprising that much of the modern writing that I have mentioned, including the Cantos, Paterson, and Maximus, diverge from the historic conventions of poetry and incorporate those of other genres. And as Carruth points out, such poems often do not attempt to turn documents into verse, but rather let them be, as inassimilable chunks of exogenous discourse. The seams show. Narrative, conceptual, and emotional connections are left to the reader to draw. The narratives don’t necessarily follow a straight line — or only one line; indeed, the lines of verse don’t always follow a straight line. Sometimes, the documents don’t even tell a story, but rather produce lyric and affective responses to the narratives from which they are drawn. These are poems that often don’t look like poems. Or, said another way, much documentary poetry is really mixed-genre (or trans-genre) writing. And this fact is entirely understandable, given the postromantic dichotomy between historical documents and poetry.

It’s not clear to me that any writer who thinks of herself or himself as “experimental” or “innovative” or “investigative” can prescriptively and deductively assume that s/he is writing in a particular genre. If the writer incorporates parts of other texts, then generic mixing and indeterminacy are inevitable. In a perfect world, we could simply stop engaging in the conversation called genre, and just write what we write. As it is, we live in a world of types — whether they purport to be literary or literal (e.g., genre, gender, gene).[33] The best way to collapse boundaries, then, is by chasing — pushing — them farther, to the point at which they become stretched so thin as to become meaningless: this moment is the “creative non” in “creative nonpoetry.” This formal stretching and blurring, rather than any particular content, is the real political promise — and pleasure — of a (non)poetics including documents.



1. From a Paris Review interview, 1961. See the Marianne Moore Reader (Viking 1961), 258.

2. See Al Filreis’s website for the list.

3. Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Schriften, in German History in Documents and Images, ed. Wolfdietrich Rasch, trans. Jonathan Skolnik (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1958), 37–38. Emphasis mine.

4. Source of English translation: The Aesthetic and Miscellaneous Works of Frederick von Schlegel: Comprising Letters on Christian Art, An Essay on Gothic Architecture, Remarks on the Romance-Poetry of the Middle Ages and on Shakspere [sic], On the Limits of the Beautiful, On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians, in German History in Documents and Images, trans. E. J. Millington (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849), 143–46.

5. Letter to Joseph Cottle, March 7, 1815. Collected Letters, ed. Earl Taylor Griggs (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1956-71), vol. 3-4, p. 545.

6. Joseph Harrington, Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern US Poetics (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002). In particular, see chapters 1 and 6.

7. Tim Dayton, Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003), 119–20.

8. As Al Filreis points out in Counter-Revolution of the Word (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), other “docu-poets” of the late 1940s, such as Norman Rosten and Millen Brand, were effectively blacklisted and their work, ignored, due to their politics in the preceding decade. Because documentary was associated with left-liberal politics, the red-baiting of the period probably had a chilling effect on would-be docupoets.

9. Hayden Carruth, The Nation, August 25, 1951, repr. in William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, ed. Charles Doyle (London: Routledge, 1980), 155–56.

10. Randall Jarrell writing in Partisan Review 18, no. 6 (November–December 1951): 698–700, repr. in Doyle, William Carlos Williams: The Critical Heritage, 239. Emphasis Jarrell’s.

11. There is, of course, more than a little professional self-interest at work amongst the first major wave of poets working in the academy. The academy, like any bureaucracy, thrives on departmentalization and compartmentalization. One must have a niche, a name, and a defined methodology, whether one is professing poetry or mechanical engineering.

12. E-mail to author, 1 June 2011.

13. E-mail to author, 31 May 2011.

14. Szirtes, “Missing Dates/Sleeve Notes,” Poetry 191, no. 1 (2001): 39.

15. Metres, “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy: The Poet as Journalist, Historian, Agitator,” The Poetry Foundation.

16. Szirtes, “Missing Dates/Sleeve Notes,” 40.

17. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Subsequent citations in text.

18. Cf. Derrida, “Economimesis,” Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 11, no. 2 (Summer 1981): 3–25.

19. Derrida, “The Law of Genre,” Glyph 7 (1980): 202–13.

20. The positive example of nonfiction writing that Gordon cites, David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, has the advantage of being 704 pages long. Even so, one can be fairly certain that there is something about Darwin, evolution, extinction, or the nineteenth century that the book has left out. By contrast, as David Greethem recounts, “Kallimachos had used the enormous riches of the Alexandrian library to define and describe a meaningful cultural ‘everything’ for his moment and place,” in his attempt not to leave anything out. Kallimachos was thus in a Derridean ‘privileged’ position of ‘archontic power’ … [but] There are no extant copies of the Pinakes, but only citations of it and extracts from it by late writers in later compilations. Kallimachos’s ‘universal’ bibliography of ‘everything’ is reduced to the state of those ‘Extracts’ with which Melville chose to preface Moby-Dick.” And this is the nature of things: something (perforce) is always left out. David Greetham, “‘Who’s In, Who’s Out’: The Cultural Poetics of Archival Exclusion,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 32, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 15.

21. Carolyn Steedman, “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust,” The American Historical Review 106, no. 4 (October 2001). See paragraph 13.

22. Maria Damon, Postliterary America: From Bagel Shop Jazz to Micropoetries (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011), 90. Subsequent citations in text.

23. Hal Foster sees something similar in what he terms “archival [visual] art”: “This work does invite psychoanalytical projections. It can also appear manic — not unlike much archival fiction today (e.g., David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers) — as well as childish. … [W]ith its nonhierarchical spatiality installation art often suggests a scatological universe, and sometimes they thematize it as such. For Freud the anal stage is one of symbolic slippage in which creative definitions and entropic indifferences struggle with one another. So it is sometimes in this art as well.” See Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” in The Archive, ed. Charles Merewether (London: Whitechapel, 2006), 147–48n13.

24. Damon, Postliterary America, 215.

25. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 476. Subsequent citations in text.

26. “But this very gap between expectation and fulfillment replaces sequential exposition and coherent argument with what looks like web-page design, the A file connecting just as readily with K (Dream City) or with Z (the Doll, the Automaton) as with B.” Marjorie Perloff, Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 32.

27. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 254.

28. Jeff Allred, American Modernism and Depression Documentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 15.

29. Ibid., 10.

30. Likewise, Perloff detects an affinity between Benjamin’s procedure in the Arcades Project and contemporary poetry generally: “[P]age after page of Benjamin’s astonishing text contains movable passages that can (and do) reappear in altered contexts; the repeated juxtapositions, cuts, links, shifts in register, framing devices, and visual markings conspire to produce a poetic text that is paradigmatic for our own poetics” (Unoriginal Genius, 43).

31. Some works emphasize the gaps as much as, or more than, the narrative — take, for instance, Susan Tichy’s use of quotations re: the Iraq War in Gallowglass or Stacy Szymaszek’s “Heart Island,” which draws on scraps of discourse from and about New York City’s potter’s field.

32. Nixon, “Literature for Real,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 7, 2010.

33. See Jed Rasula’s provocative discussion of genre and race in “Notes on Genre,” in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), 102–3.

Reading 'sound'

Stephen Ratcliffe reading at the Marin Headlands, May 16, 2010.

Reading sound (shape-in-air) of poem as acoustic phenomena (in air, heard by ear), one hears the syllable, word, line (and line break), stanza unit, whole poem determined by the poem’s shape on the page, its physical presence (seen by eye) as letters written/composed/transcribed on the page into words, there to be perceived by the human (reader) when the poem is read aloud (or silently, thereby entering the mind’s ear as sound only imagined).

Sound in the poem (i.e., the sound of “sound of waves in channel,” “sound of song sparrow calling from tobacco plant branch in right foreground”) is an approximation of actual ‘real’ sound in the world: is the sound of words which themselves are not exactly that sound — not the same thing as that sound — but can enact it, can be a transcription of it, as Stein suggested when she talked about “the word or words that made what I looked at look like itself” (and elsewhere, “made what I looked at be itself”).

What I want to think about here is the relation between poem on the page vs. — i.e., ‘as opposed to,’ not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than but different from, not the same as but not equal to — poem in the air, by which I mean the physical shape of letters-composed-into-words-arranged-in-lines on-the-page (what we as readers read with the eye when we read the poem on the page) vs. what I would call the ‘acoustic shape’ of those same letters-composed-into-words arranged-in-lines-on-the-page read aloud (what we as listeners hear with the ear when we hear someone else read the poem). I don’t mean to ‘privilege’ the sound of the poem in the air over its shape on the page, nor do I mean to suggest that the sound I am thinking about is (simply) speech itself, the sound of voice a talking/speaking, that “speech” that one Robert Grenier once (famously, at least to some of us) once said (wrote) “I hate.”[1] What I do want to do here is think about the physics of the poem’s sound (words in air perceived with EAR) in relation to the poem’s shape (words on page perceived with EYE) — these most obvious of ‘conditions’ — because it seems to me there’s more here than meets the eye (or ear). That is to say, we sometimes read poems on the page, and we also sometimes go to poetry readings, hear poems read aloud (most often, though not always of course, without having the poem being read aloud by the poet on the page in front of us, so that we might ‘read along with’ the poem, following his or her words on the page as he or she reads them aloud). Everyone here in this room has had, I presume, both of these experiences: the experience of reader sitting in chair reading words on page; the experience of listener, also sitting in chair, hearing words read aloud by someone else, someone who is seeing the words on the page in order to read (i.e., translate) them into the air.

So what are the differences between these two obviously different kinds of experiences of these two also obviously different ‘conditions’ of the poem — one the physical ‘shape’ (image) of its words on the page, one the acoustic ‘echo’ (sound) of those words read into the air, one of which we see with our eyes, the other of which we hear with our ears? What, to put it differently, is the difference between sound and shape in poetry (the acoustic dimension, the visual dimension), which isn’t exactly the distinction Zukofsky was making between “Upper limit music” and “Lower limit speech”? What for example is the difference between the duration of syllable, word, line, stanza, whole poem in air vs. on the page? And what exactly is it that we hear when we hear the poem read? And in what ways are the ‘things’ we hear (in the air) different from ‘things’ we see (on the page) when the poem is read silently? And why are these differences important, why do they matter?

These distinctions matter, let me simply say, because we hardly notice them: the poem on the page is so obviously not the same poem in the air — the poem we read not the same as the poem we listen to, being read — that we are likely not to pay any attention to the differences between what we see and what we hear, the physical ‘shapes’ of words on the page and the corresponding acoustic ‘shapes’ of words in the air. Unnoticed effects (in this case the visual ‘effect’ of letters shaped into words arranged on the two-dimensional page, the sound ‘effect’ of those words read out into the air) are not, however, less significant than noticed ones. Nor is the distinction between sound (poem heard when read aloud) and image (poem read when seen on page) less important to our experience of poetry than the things we normally think of as being ‘important’: what the poem ‘says’ or is ‘about’ for example, the poet’s ‘influences’ or ‘school’ or ‘themes’ or ‘biography’ or ‘reputation’ etc. What I’m asking about here is the phenomenology of the poem itself: how do we come to know it in its different incarnations (as physical/acoustic phenomena), and why does it matter to pay attention to such things.

The sound of the poem conveys, in abstract ‘terms’ (sound vibrations), what the words ‘picture’ or ‘say.’ When I say ‘picture’ or ‘say’ I mean carries into the air, across to reader’s eye, listener’s ear, transcribes into physical letters (type) on the page, a two-dimensional surface/plane. The dimension in which the poem’s sound exists, and is perceived by listener/reader, is not the same physical dimension (‘space’) as poem’s words, made up of letters (of the alphabet) written down on the page.

The poem’s sound is the echo of its shape, the physical shape of its letters shaped into words on the page. It is the shadow cast by those letters/words struck by the light of the reader’s voice (perceived by listener’s ear, thence mind). The articulation of words by the reader reading silently or aloud casts the shadow of those words upon the ear’s plane, from which ‘point’ the perception of sound takes place. Just as the shape of the poem’s letters-shaped-into-words is stamped on the reader’s eye, so the sound of those letters-shaped-into-words is stamped onto the listener’s ear: two different kinds of perception lead to mind’s perception of poem.

The poem’s words ‘picture’ ‘things’ we ‘see’ (things which need not have ‘appeared, its ‘presence’ set against the nothing of total blindness/blankness) — the image, ‘poem-as-speaking-picture’ (ut picture poesis, as Horace said): this word-picture speaks to, is imprinted on, mind’s eye, so to speak. Sound on the other hand (also a presence against ground of ‘silence’ without this poem) is not visible, can’t be seen, is (somehow mysteriously) heard and (somehow, also mysteriously) felt: it conveys the ‘secret’ life of the poem’s emotion/feeling, appeals to emotion (note Pound’s melopoeia: “inducing emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of the speech”).

To take a few examples, let me read to you these words from Wordsworth:

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur …

followed by these words from Keats:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close-bosom friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells …

followed by these words from Shelley:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes …

followed by these words from H.D.:

O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat
rend it to tatters …

You will notice that all of these are addressed to a second person, even in Wordsworth (Dorothy, who is standing there listening to William, enters the poem at line 115) — the poem as address to a listener going clear back to Homer (andra moi enepe: “sing in me muse”). You will also notice the sounds of the words I’ve just read to you: the sound of my voice reading these words, whose “sound and pitch emphasis … [are] never apart from [their] meaning” as Zukofsky put it. You will also, I believe, feel in those sounds something of the emotional ‘weight’ those words read/heard in those rhythms (those pitches sounded in those time intervals, those vibrations heard in those durations) convey. Hearing all that, what you don’t notice is what I see reading these same words on the page: their shape as letters, the white spaces (and punctuation) between them, the physical look of the physical language itself, whose presence on the page enables the potential sound encoded there to be made apparent (to the ear of the listener) when those words are read aloud by the person who reads the poem aloud, as I have just done.

Some would diagram/picture the poem’s sound as a graph of the speaking voice, rising and falling in “pitch emphasis.” I would suggest that Pollock’s drip paintings are an image of that same sound: ‘abstract,’ not a representation of any ‘thing’ we can see but a register of motion itself, the trace of a marking subject whose hand (read ‘voice’) poured the paint onto the canvas (read ‘words’ that, when read aloud, produce these sounds). Alternatively, I would think to use the shadow cast by the rock in Cézanne’s Bathers as an image of the poem’s sound: what we ‘see’/hear when light of voice hits words on the page, sound-as-shadow/echo-of-words-on-page-read-aloud: sound in this regard something like offstage action in a play, the action we hear about but don’t see performed physically by actors on the stage, things spoken about (aloud) in words only, the play’s ‘performed’ action analogous to the physical ‘action’ of words in the poem on the page.

The sound of the words in the poem is potential sound, realized as sound when the poem is read aloud. Words on the page present the reader (who reads the poem silently, as words on page) with ‘information’ as to how the poem might be read aloud, thereby releasing its sound into the air. Consider the opening ‘unit’ of Leslie Scalapino’s It’s go in / quiet illumined grass / land, which reads:

silver half freezing in day
                     elation the
of the outside sky walking

— words whose placement (in lines) on the page constitutes a syntax — knitting together/arrangement/composition of thought, perception/event in words — that exists (as event) on the page and, when read aloud, also then in the air, as sound (‘information’), that part of the poem which the physical shape of words gives (acoustic) rise to, as acoustic shape.

Words on the page are physical ‘action’ — ‘events’ made up (composed) of letters which are only part of the poem — the physical shape part, which can be perceived by the eye (and brain) but not ear. What words ‘say’ can be heard (can only be heard?) if/when the poem is read aloud, its words sounded in air.

Thus back to the question: what is the difference between words-on-page (physical objects, made of letters and spaces and marks of punctuation) and words-in-air (acoustic phenomena released into the air when words (syllables) are sounded)? And also, going from physical ‘thing-on-page’ to the nonphysical (acoustic) ‘thing-in-air,’ how does information transcribed on the page get ‘translated’ into the air — as pitch, duration, volume (loudness), voice emphasis? How exactly does poem act as musical score, its marks on paper analogous to notes in music whose instructions to the performer enable that person to play that piece?

And taking this question of performance further, how is the information of the poem on the page (which the reader perceives, with eye) different from the ‘same’ information of poem sounded in air (which the listener perceives, with ear)?

That is, what exactly does the ‘spoken’ text (words read aloud) give us (its ‘auditor’) that the ‘unspoken’ (merely read-with-eye) not give us (its ‘armchair reader’)? How can poem on page, which exists in silent ‘two-dimensional’ space out of time (like painting on wall, ‘abstract’ painting I should say, since words are abstract in the sense that they don’t actually picture the things, events, people, thoughts they refer to, as Pound would have us believe Chinese does, the character/picture of sun rising through tree branches meaning ‘EAST’) — how exactly does that physical work on the two-dimensional page enter the third dimension (air/space) as words sounded in time — the time it takes to perform it, the time it takes to hear it — and what does our experience of the poem in time (experience of poem read aloud, spoken, heard with ear) give us that the poem on the page doesn’t?

I read these words (again) on the page:

silver half freezing in day
                     elation the
of the outside sky walking

And then this next (second) ‘unit’ below it:

silver half freezing in day
                      moon’s elation
of the outside rose, his seeing
                      on both
seeing someone else at all and the
                      half freezing
elation of the outside so that’s even
                      with one
continually over and over one/person

What I see with my eye isn’t what I hear with my ear, doesn’t register the same ‘information’ in my brain. The words seen exist outside time, in “a / literary space outside of ideology & history, a zone / timeless / & blank” as Charles Bernstein puts it,[2] exist ‘in potential’ (waiting for me to open book, turn the page, read them); the words read aloud take place in time, define the time of the poem by marking it out with/in those exact sounds. What has been written down, as mind’s act (“mind’s operations,” as Leslie Scalapino puts it)[3] becomes ‘realized’ (‘real’) once read (with eye) and heard (with ear).[4]

The sound of the voice reading the (silent) words arranged on the page enacts the poem’s ‘feeling’ (intangible), mind’s action in thinking such things (word events) in the first place. Sound (vibration) and pitch emphasis are not only not apart from its meaning; they get to the heart of where it (meaning) actually lies, waiting to be released (heard).

Two kinds of sound: those sounds we ‘see’ when we read the poem’s words on the page (silently) — “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action, and till action, lust / Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust” — which we don’t actually hear; and those sounds we hear when we hear the poem read aloud — “Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action, and till action, lust / Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust” — which we don’t actually see (i.e., don’t see the letters-arranged-as-words that make those sounds ‘appear’ when the reader reads them aloud). The poem’s ‘information’ is encoded in two different (but interdependent) ‘languages’ — one (physical) performed in two dimensions, one (acoustic) performed when words lift off the page into the air; one read (as letters/words) by the eye, the other ‘read’ (as performed sounds) by the ear; one preceding the other in ‘composition’ (sound of words coming to mind before actual words written down on page), the other necessarily following ‘performance’ of the first (words written on page) as reader’s voice delivers them.

So what exactly are the differences between our experience (perception) of poem on page and poem in air? For one thing, one (the poem made up of letters made into words printed on the page) exists as I say in two dimensions, comes to us through the eyes: we see it, see its letters and words, its lines and the spaces between them, the black of printed text and white space of the page it floats on. Whereas the other exists in three dimensions, in the space of the room through which poem’s sound vibrations travel from mouth of the person who reads poem (aloud) to ear of the person who hears it so read. Thus two different ‘forms’ of same poem, or same poem ‘translated’ into two different shapes/incarnations (‘languages’), one (print) experienced with the eye, the other (sound) with the ear.

To read poem on page is to have an essentially ‘private’ experience. The line of communication goes from text-on-page through (reader’s) eye into (reader’s) mind: moves that is from the flatness of words printed on the page to an interior space inside the reader’s head (‘mind’s eye’ so to speak). To hear the poem read aloud could also be private — one person reading, one person listening — but can also, and often indeed is, ‘public’: one person reading, several people listening at the same time to the same poem read aloud. So it is (or can be) a ‘shared,’ ‘communal’ experience — ten or twelve or twenty-five of us sitting in a room as we are here, hearing someone speaking the poem. But at the same time, even though we listen to the same words being read aloud at the same reading, we each of us also hear the poem in private, in the privacy of our own head (‘mind’s ear’), so it’s also, like reading poems on page with eye, a private experience, one that takes place in the isolate space of our own heads.

But again, what is it exactly that we see or hear when we read the poem on the page, listen to it being read aloud in the air? Well, let’s see, we see shapes of words, arranged in lines, separated/punctuated by marks of punctuation. We can, if we want (or even if we don’t want; sometimes we can’t help it), slow down our experience of reading, go two steps forward and one step back, read not only horizontally (across the line) but vertically (across lines), backward and forward, reread, can start to see how the poem is ‘put together’ on the page, how its words are set next to one another, in approximate relation to each other: how these same opening lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, for example,

Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

are ‘composed’ of multiple overlapping patterns that we hear but don’t notice consciously when we hear the poem read aloud: the sh of “shame” is echoed (twice) in “action … action” in line 2, the st of “waste” (also twice) in “lust … lust”; the ABAB order of noun/prepositional phrase/noun/prepositional phrase in line 1 (“expense of spirit … waste of shame”) reordered as an ABBA chiasmus (“lust in action … action lust”) in the next; the various u sounds (short and long) appearing in all four lines in “of,” “of,” “lust,” “action,” “action,” “lust,” “murd’rous,” “bloody,” “full,” “rude,” “cruel,” and “trust”; “in” appearing in the first two lines; “Is” the first word of lines 2 and 3; and so on. These are things we hear when we hear the poem read but don’t, as I say, actually notice that we notice, because the poem’s performance (in reading) goes by too fast for us to notice these effects consciously — at least as consciously as we do notice them, and testify to them, given the time to read the poem (slowly) on the page.

Not so with poem-in-air, poem read aloud in ‘performance’: we hear those same (shaped/physical) words but don’t actually see them: hear the sound (pitch and duration) of syllables, the o’s and ah’s of vowels preceded and followed by consonants, the glide and clash of consonants preceded and followed by vowels, the rhythm of a sequence of syllables read one after the other ‘in time’ (the time it takes a reader’s voice to read them, time the so-called ‘fourth dimension’ through which each word travels on its way to the listener’s ear). The poem’s ‘speed’ is beyond our control — we cannot slow it down or speed it up, cannot go back or leap forward, can only follow (‘keep up’) with speed of reader (reading words) as best we can. So we’re carried along at the speed of sound so to speak, the sound of someone else’s voice (not me) whose intonations don’t reverberate inside my chest, my throat, because I am silent, I am the listener hearing the words the person reading (reader) reads to me (the listener), who hears those words but doesn’t actually see them (physically, on the page), ‘sees’ them only as sound of words in air — hypnotic, casting a spell that sends me into my own daydream — the sound of reading ‘sound’ (itself) as such.





1.  Robert Grenier, “On Speech,” In The American Tree: Language, Poetry, Realism, ed. Ron Silliman (Orono, ME: The National Poetry Foundation, 1986), 496.

2.  Charles Bernstein, “Thelonious Monk and the Performance of Poetry,” in My Way (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), 23. The full passage is worth noting: “Every reading (whether one’s own reading of a book or a / poet’s reading to an audience) is an enactment, a / sounding, an / embodiment, which is to say a / reading that takes or makes / time, that enters into / the social, material, & historical space of / our lives. To deny the performative / aspect of poetry is to repress / its most literally political dimension, which is to / say, how it / enters into the world. To deny the rhetoricity / (rhetoricalness?) / & theatricality of a poem is to idealize a / literary space outside of ideology & history, a zone / timeless / & blank in which evasion substitutes for the friction / of interaction.”

3.  “Remembering everything, all layers at the same time, writing is the mind’s operations per se and imitation of it at the same time”: Leslie Scalapino, “The Radical Nature of Experience,” in The Public World/Syntactically Impermanence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1999),

4. Scalapino’s remarks in the following essay, “The Cannon,” on speech in relation to thought, are also worth noting. From page 26: “In the view (such as in Anne Waldman’s statements) that (which is the real) poetry is ‘speech,’ there’s a sense of ‘speech’ (spoken is social, convention of ‘conversation’?) — that is not ‘thought’ [interior], is not ‘felt spatially / such as correspondences in the limbs.’ Tonal is considered thus as ranges of speaking voice or breath. Yet poets have been writing other tones — that are in the written text only — tones not occurring as speaking. These are ‘sounded’ silently, spatially — a separation; between ‘one’ and ‘social’? Or separation between ‘one’ and ‘correspondences in the limbs’ and night. (As if a butterfly and the butterfly motion of a swimmer.)”

Words as 'things' ('actions'/'events')

Glass bowls used in live performance of Stephen Ratcliffe's Remarks on Color / Sound, Marin Headlands Center for the Arts, May 16, 2010.

The Greek thinkers speak of σωζειν τα φαινοηενος — “to save what appears”; that means to conserve and to preserve in unconcealedness what shows itself as what shows itself and in the way it shows itself — that is against the withdrawing into concealment and distortion. He who in this fashion saves (conserves and preserves) the appearing, saves it into the unconcealed, is himself saved for the unconcealed and conserved for it.

— Heidegger, Parmenides[1]



grey whiteness of cloud against shadowed
top of ridge, motion of leaves on branch
in foreground, sound of waves in channel

      this object in this appears,
      which was arrangement

      of “flatness” comparable to
      color, “subject,” one

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
wingspan of gull gliding toward horizon

(Temporality, 982)

The words are a writing down of the ‘things’ the person is seeing looking out at them ‘out there’ (in the world). And the ‘things’ (which are ‘events’/‘actions’) are taking place in a real present of time going on, from one moment to the next to the next. … The words are not those ‘things’ (‘events’/‘actions’) per se, are ‘equivalents’ (in their own time and place, i.e., on the stage of the page) of those things (actions/‘events’) — “grey whiteness of cloud … shadowed top of ridge, motion of leaves on branch … sound of waves in channel” — going on ‘out there’ (offstage, in the world). As phenomena, those things change from one moment to the next, one day to the next, as do the words that are ‘writing’ them into the present (presence) of the page (as site or stage of such writing). And so on 12.17, “grey whiteness of cloud against shadowed / top of ridge, motion of leaves on branch” becomes “grey whiteness of fog against invisible / ridge, green shapes of leaves on branch” on 12.18; and on 12.19 things change (and also do not) again, to “grey whiteness of fog against invisible ridge, sparrow perched on redwood fence.” The “clouds” and “ridge” are there in the distance, the “leaves on branch” and “sparrow … on fence” in the foreground — observer’s eye moving in such a perception of ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) in world, reader’s eye from word to word also moving. The words are an uncovering of what is ‘there’ in the world, visible but also “concealed” (from us, as viewers), in Heidegger’s sense that the truth of being in the world is also concealed, and that the poem can bring things forward to disclose themselves, as presence, in the appearance of their unconcealment on the page/stage (i.e., the site of their verbal ‘action,’ which ‘shows’ us (in words) that offstage action of those things/events taking place (‘happening’) ‘out there’ (in the world).

What follows those first three lines (i.e., two indented pairs of lines also set in Courier — an ‘equivalent spacing’ font/typeface in which each letter, space, and mark of punctuation has the same width; the first line in each of these couplets six spaces longer than the second; one comma in the first pair of lines, two in the second) shifts ‘things’ a bit:

this object in this appears,
which was arrangement

of “flatness” comparable to
color, “subject,” one

Does “this object” ‘point to’ what preceded it (a “sound of waves in channel”), as it seems to? Does the second “this” in the line ‘point to’ the line itself (i.e., to the prepositional phrase “in this appears”), where that “sound of waves” and, before that, the “motion of leaves on branch” and “grey whiteness of cloud against shadowed / top of ridge” also ‘appear,’ or seem to, as unconcealed ‘things’ (’action’/‘events’) now taking place as presences in the words, as it would seem? Are such words an “arrangement” of such ‘things’ (‘action’/‘events’) as words, whose “flatness” (i.e., on the page) is somehow (by what Prospero called “this rough magic”) made (mysteriously, certainly) “comparable [like, the ‘enactment’ or ‘performance’ of] to” such ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) as it also would seem? And does “color” (in the following line) ‘point to’ (or rather, ‘name’) what these words are here ‘talking about’ as words (i.e., their material ‘focus’ or ‘subject matter,’ so to speak); and “one” (perhaps? floating there as it is at the end of the line) ‘point to’ what’s coming next, in the final couplet, as it also indeed seems to —

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
wingspan of gull gliding toward horizon

— the words in those two lines (like the words in the first three lines) again also ‘naming’/‘pointing to’/‘performing’/‘enacting’/‘being’ those actual ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) ‘out there’ in that (offstage) world, whose ‘appearance’ here in words discloses them, makes them present (gives them ‘presence’ here on the page/stage), brings them into what Heidegger called “unconcealedness”?

But this poem (“12.17” so called) is only one poem/page of many — its ‘title’ pointing to the day it was written, 12.17.10, 12 days ago (I’m writing this on 12.28.10 having written a new poem/page, earlier this morning, “12.28,” which looks exactly like this one: one 3-line stanza with two commas followed by two indented 2-line stanzas [one with a comma, the other with two commas] followed by a final two-line stanza with one comma) — in a work that began on April 10, 2008 (with “4.10”) and will continue to January 4, 2011 (“1.4”): 1,000 pages, written in 1,000 consecutive days (“12.17” is page 982 — a work called Temporality. And before Temporality, two previous 1,000-page works: Remarks on Color / Sound (written from July 15, 2005, to April 9, 2010), and HUMAN / NATURE (written from October 19, 2002, to July 14, 2005); and, before these, three earlier 474-page works: CLOUD / RIDGE (written from July 2, 2001, to October 18, 2002),[2] REAL[3] (from March 17, 2000, to July 1, 2001), Portraits & Repetition[4] (from February 9, 1998, to May 28, 1999) — some 4,422 pages of ‘days’ — ‘days’ written in consecutive days — all of them sort of doing the same thing; i.e., “seeing, hearing, wording,” as Norman Fischer has written, keeping track (in words) of ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) ‘out there’ in the world …

Every page in each of these works has its own physical ‘shape,’ so to speak, so that when one turns the pages one sees, or seems to, the same thing: in Portraits & Repetition, five 2-line couplets, the first line always three ‘characters’ — letters, spaces, marks of punctuation — longer than the second, somewhere in every pair of lines one comma plus one word in parenthesis; and in REAL, a 17-line prose poem (or so it seems, except that the line breaks are intentional, the right margin of each page having or making a particular ‘shape’), each with five sentences and a comma in each sentence; and in CLOUD / RIDGE (its title ‘shows’ the cloud above the ridge), each page with five stanzas (with one comma in each), each right margin on every page also creating a visual ‘shape’ on the page (which ‘pictures’ the acoustic shape of its sound in the air); and in HUMAN / NATURE, four stanzas (with two commas in the first and third, one in the second and fourth), ten lines on each page (each indented line ‘counted’ as part of the line before it, each one moved three spaces to the right of that preceding line); and in Remarks on Color / Sound, nine lines in four stanzas (with two commas in the first and third, two in the second and fourth), the two middle/‘inner’ 2-line stanzas indented six spaces to the right of the two ‘outer’ ones, which ‘frame’ them, one with three lines and the other with two; and in Temporality, four stanzas of nine lines (the same pattern of 3, 2, 2, 2, the two ‘inside’ ones again indented six spaces to the right), two commas in the first and third stanzas, two in the second and fourth, lengths of lines somewhat shorter than in Remarks on Color / Sound, as for example in “12.17” above.

But so much for what one sees when one reads these ‘shaped’ words on a page, seeing/hearing/wording ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’). What’s the point? Why do it? Why every day? Why the same thing every day (day after day after day)? Is each day (poem/page) the same? Is any day (poem/page) better than any other? How can you know? How can someone read it — who will read it for that matter (or for that matter publish it)? How will they read it, or think about it, or ever remember it? What will it mean (to readers who read it, think about it, remember it)? And beyond questions such as these, these further questions (for writer as well as reader): what happens when you look at (or listen to) something, day after day after day, over and over again? What do you actually see, or hear? And how can you ‘say’ it (i.e., write down what it is that you see or hear)? What is the relation between the words you use and the actual ‘things’ (‘actions’/‘events’) you see or hear? Is there a relation between the name of something and that thing, as Plato in the Cratylus seemed to propose: “things have names by nature”; “the name is to be like the thing”; “names rightly given are the likenesses … of the things which they name.”[5] That is to say, can there be words “that [make] whatever I [look] at look like itself … words that make what I [look] at be itself” (my italics), as Gertrude Stein writes in “Portraits and Repetition”?[6] And is it possible that those words are not, as Stein discovered, “words that [have] in them any quality of description” but rather are themselves those things — made (by naming) to “be” themselves as real/actual ‘things’ (presences) on the page that is the stage of their being (by being ‘shown’) ‘here’ (present)/(unconcealed)?

Though questions such as these might not be easily answered, they seem to be the questions raised by these long ‘serial’ works I’ve been writing these days (all these years it seems), works that go on and on and on, doing the same kinds of things again and again: noting ‘matters of fact’; turning, as Theseus says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “the forms of things … to shapes,” giving them “a local habitation and a name”;[7] trying simply to ‘keep track’ of what’s going on from one (present) moment to the next, one day to the next — an ‘impossible task’ as it turns out— looking at, and listening to, things “without many preconceptions as to what that thing is,” as Norman Fischer again writes, wondering as Stein did in her “Portraits,”

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.

And while other poets have turned their attention to writing “the long poem” (Whitman, Pound, Williams, Stevens, Zukofsky, and Olson “to name but a few”) no one (it seems) has taken it to quite such an extreme measure. Perhaps with good reason (!) for the reasons named in the preceding paragraph. But there are nonetheless some ‘contemporaries’ whose work I would point to as being somewhat in the same direction as mine: Larry Eigner, whose Collected Poems, more than 3,070 of them, in four volumes, has just been published by Stanford University Press; Ron Silliman, whose compendious The Alphabet gathers twenty-six smaller books (one for each letter of the alphabet, Albany through Zyxt) into one volume (1,062 pages); all of Leslie Scalapino’s life work — poetry, plays, fiction, and critical writings, including her just now published The Dihedrons Gazelle-Dihedrals Zoom, which as Norman Fischer has said to me “is like seven novels, with every novel unfolding in every sentence”;[8] and Robert Grenier, whose poems (‘hand drawn’ in ‘notebooks’) are virtually unpublished, at least not as printed books.[9] What might one say about such ‘on-going’ (and, in Grenier’s case, impossible to publish?) work? Perhaps in the ‘glimpse’ that follows ‘here’ is the beginning of an answer to that question …

Bob Grenier, my good friend and neighbor here in Bolinas, started writing his ‘drawn poems’ in 1989, shortly after moving here. To date, he has completed some 130-plus ‘notebooks’ of these poems, each notebook measuring 8 3/4” high by 5 3/4” wide, each with 110 pages, which comes to a total of some 14,300-plus pages of ‘drawn poems’ by my count. The poems are written in four colors of ink, Faber-Castelli “uni-ball” black, blue, green, and red, impossibly expensive to print (in books) but now variously ‘available’ — both online and at the Greene Naftali Gallery in New York, which has sixty-four Giclée prints made from drawing poem images “from the ‘agricultural year’ 2003–2005 in Bolinas, California (rainy season to rainy season — a sort of Shepherd’s Calendar without shepherd or sheep) called 64” (see here for “rough [as Bob calls them] translations of the texts” of these poems). Here are “rough translations” of three of Grenier’s poems from “64”:

RED W [green/blue]
OOOD [blue]
[OODD (blue)]
RED [black]
WOODS [red]

AFTER [red]
NOON [black]
SUN [green]
SHINE [blue]

Note the presence of the afternoon sun shining on the wall of the house, which ‘[re]appears’ in such letters drawn in the poem that ‘says’ that light, lets it ‘come forth’ into being; how the words gather their authority from the things they name; how ‘to say’ it (what Heidegger in Early Greek Thinking calls “λεγειν,” “a letting-lie-together before which gathers and is gathered”[10]) “names the inexhaustible mystery that the speaking of language comes to pass from the unconcealment of what is present, and is determined according to the lying-before of what is present as the letting-lie-together-before.” …

APRI [red]
COT [blue]
JAM [green]
JAR [black]

Note how letters line up on the lines like jars of apricot jam on a shelf: the A and P and lower case r and dot over the i in the first line look like real jars of jam; so do the C and O in the second line; so also the J and the A and the first loop of the M in the third line, and the J and R at the end — which isn’t to say that a word-made-of-letters is ‘the same’ as what it ‘means’ – since it is utterly ‘unlike’ whatever it ‘points to’ or ‘names’ – but that it ‘corresponds to,’ or is ‘in accord with’ or ‘in the company of,’ everything else that’s going on ‘out there’; that it occurs with the thing, ‘vibrates’ together with it, which is very mysterious. … Word-conserving/preserving, “language” (Grenier writes) “like jam when it is being made, or cookies when they are being made, a gathering-of-‘ingredients’ (letters, e.g., letters into words) w[hi]ch allows what is to come into being, as ‘itself’”; after-the-fact of the occasion of the writing, what is said is conserved in ‘written form’ to be read.”[11]

And here are three more from the June 2010 notebook:

FOX W [red]
4 [black]
MORE [green]
FOX [blue]

Note the numbers: first one fox (the mother) then four more (her “kits”), then “FOX” singular (rather than plural), like the first one: 3 + 1 letters in that line ‘equal to’ Arabic numeral “4” in next line. …

A [black]
BAT [green]
A [red]
BAT [blue]

Again note the numbers (counting): first one bat then another — which disappears out of sight off the page to the left (vertical stroke of the B in the last line missing); a 1, 3, 1, 3 series of letters per line; one A in each line, two B’s and two T’s in lines 2 and 4. …

HERE [red]
I AM [black]
THERE [green]
YOU [blue]

A poem for Leslie Scalapino (who is no longer here), which echoes Creeley in Pieces[12] (also not here): “Here I / am. There / you are” — without enough space for “are” after the “you” in the last line (since Leslie also is not here). All of these poems are elegiac, in that time is passing in them (is registered in this writing of the pen moving across the page), these marks made by “this living hand” of Robert Grenier that bear witness and testify to the fact of being alive.

And here finally is one of the poems from Penn Scans:

ACROSS [blue]
THE [green]
ROAD [black]

Note how the words seem to bring forth the action: how, as Grenier writes, “Whether drawing poem texts like ‘the one about crickets’ (no. 39) accomplish (or help accomplish) whatever it is they are otherwise ‘saying’ — so that seeing/reading ‘crickets’ a reader may hear ‘crickets themselves’ (& even be able to literally go (‘by ear’) ‘across/the/road’?) — remains an animating question.” …


The examples that follow illustrate the practice described above. For more poems by Stephen Ratcliffe in this feature, click here.


From Portraits & Repetition


approach of a bird's sound before the observer sees it (out)
window on left, profile of figure standing in front of it

vertical edge beside (angle) of plane, appearance of subject
whose following perception includes the feeling inside it

sunlight in relation to thinking of the surface of the ridge
(see) adjacent to which it isn't an actual event, example

followed by object on left, the way the person's hand passes
across face in mirror leaning against the wall (imagined)

(not) like invisible action before it becomes the experience
inside thought, distance between stem in glass and viewer



Sunlit surface of an orange globe on white shelf
reflected in the window opposite it, small dark
bird crossing the pale blue of sky in vertical
window on left.  Pregnant woman in a dark blue
sweater who watches child jump naked into pool
at edge of brick plane, woman whose hair falls
across right cheek calling museum in Amsterdam
"the mother lode."  Ophelia pulling a necklace
on a string from bosom of white dress, wanting
to give it back to Hamlet who doesn't want it
back.  Silver-haired man in green sweatshirt
whose teenage boy tapes ounce of pot to his
groin before boarding plane for Mexico, gets up
each morning to a vial of insulin without which
he will die.  An inverted triangle of sunlight
slanting into canyon below top of ridge, bird
passing across low grey cloud cover above it.




upturned curve of pine branch against first grey
light in right corner, chorus of birds calling
from plane of field below it
                               woman in dark
green shirt recalling her parents not letting
her leave Beirut to see her boyfriend, locking
herself in her room all day to read Dr. Zhivago

woman in blue V-neck sweater asking “what would
Mrs. Ramsay say,” claiming she had been in love
         Mr. Tansley thinking “if only he could
be alone in his room,” noting that “he was not
going to be made a fool of by women”
circle of sun’s reflection in the motionless
grey green plane on the left, bits of white
shells scattered over sand bottom below it




golden-crowned sparrow perched on dried hemlock stalk against
grey white sky in right foreground, two red finches on feeder
across from it, sound of waves in channel
                                            man on right
noting “a streak of pure paint might give a sense of red,
its glow would be cross-hatched with green"
                                              man across
from him adding “I have limited myself to the use of black
and white, as being the most disparate colors, red the color
most opposed to both of them”
                                sunlit sandstone-colored point
against pale blue whiteness of sky in upper left corner, white
edge of blue green wave braking into foreground across from it



From Remarks on Color / Sound


silhouette of hummingbird perched on yellow and green tip
of branch against grey whiteness of cloud, golden-crowned
sparrow calling oh dear me, sound of jet passing overhead

     the eye moves from one to the next,
     measuring each one’s effect

     these perspectives, each one of us,
     cannot be simply juxtaposed

grey whiteness of cloud on horizon to the left of point,
shadowed green canyon of tree-lined ridge above channel 



1.  Martin Heidegger, Parmenides, trans. André Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 120.

2.  CLOUD / RIDGE (Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX [books], 2011); CLOUD / RIDGE and HUMAN / NATURE can also be found in the form of earlier drafts at UbuWeb here and here.

3.  Stephen Ratcliffe, REAL (Bolinas, CA: Avenue B, 2007).

4.  Ratcliffe, Portraits & Repetition (Sausalito, CA: The Post-Apollo Press, 2002).

5.  Plato, “Cratylus,” in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 429, 468, 473.

6.  Gertrude Stein, “Portraits and Repetition,” in Writings and Lectures 1909–1945, ed. Patricia Meyerowitz (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1971), 115.

7.  William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, in The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002).

8.  Norman Fischer, conversation with author, December 3, 2010.

9.  Larry Eigner, The Collected Poems of Larry Eigner, ed. Curtis Faville and Robert Grenier (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); Ron Silliman, The Alphabet (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2008); Robert Grenier, “Penn Scans Note,” “64 / Robert Grenier Drawing Poem Prints,” “‘Rough’ Translations from Drawing/Poems, 2004,” and “Notebook,” June 2010.

10.  Heidegger, “Logos (Heraclitus, Fragment B 50),” in Early Greek Thinking, trans. David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi (New York: Harper/Collins, 1984), 64.

11.  Remarks here and elsewhere from Robert Grenier, conversations with author, January 2–3, 2011, and correspondence with author, January 2, 2011.

12.  Robert Creeley, Pieces (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1969).