Editorial note: Brian Unger’s “Norman Fischer: A ‘test case for being’” was written in response to a portfolio of eleven new poems by Norman Fischer, which you can read here. Fischer was also the subject of PoemTalk #38, for which host Al Filreis was joined by Linh Dinh, Julia Bloch, and Frank Sherlock. — Michael S. Hennessey
Somewhere we’ve developed the misconception that poetry is self-expression, and meditation is going inward. Actually, poetry has nothing to do with self-expression, it is the way to be free, finally, of self-expression …
— Norman Fischer
… in spite of the contemporary public perception of meditation and poetry as special, exotic, and difficult, they are both as old and as common as grass. The one goes back to essential moments of stillness and deep inwardness, and the other to the fundamental impulse of expression and presentation.
— Gary Snyder
Is it not possible that all poets, the writings of all poets, participate in a kind of lyricism?
— Hank Lazer
I don’t know who’s right, Gary Snyder or Norman Fischer. Norman says that poetry has nothing to do with self-expression, while Gary says poetry is rooted in self-expression. Much of Fischer’s work reviewed here is highly social and profoundly universalist in nature, but it is often a form of self-expression from which the self has been excised, a “voiceless lyricism” denoting conflict and contradiction, not mastery or self-elevation. Self-expression, according to Adorno, is a false categorization if left unanalyzed. Adorno’s critique is exemplified extraordinarily well in Fischer’s poetry, particularly in “Expensive Arrangements,” which we will examine closely. This excerpt from “On Lyric Poetry and Society” helped shape my examination of this poem:
For the substance of a poem is not merely an expression of individual impulses and experiences. Those become a matter of art only when they come to participate in something universal …. Not that what the lyric poem expresses must be immediately equivalent to what everyone experiences …. Rather, immersion in what has taken individual form elevates the lyric poem to the status of something universal by making manifest something not distorted, not grasped, not yet subsumed. It thereby anticipates, spiritually, a situation in which no false universality, that is, nothing profoundly particular, continues to fetter what is other than itself, the human .… The universality of the lyric’s substance, however, is social in nature. Only one who hears the voice of humankind in the poem’s solitude can understand what the poem is saying.
Without the theoretical hall pass of “voiceless lyricism” or some other dispensation, (former) language writers who are committed Zen Buddhists need a special pass to write old-fashioned lyric poetry. Let’s be honest, Buddhists don’t believe in a substantially constituted, separate, independent, thoroughly individualized self, and that’s what old-fashioned poetic self-expression has been based on since the nineteenth century. So Norman has a double problem: he has the Buddhist problem with the self in self-expression, and he has the language school problem with the I-focused, emotive, subjective, autobiographical narratives of neo-Romanticism. Language poetics calls for the “abolition of the spell of selfhood,” the demolition of the I-based lyric. The group that Norman Fischer associated with, trained with, and wrote with, wanted a clean break with “the automatism of the poetic “I” and its “naturalized voice.”
Yet self-expression is not the whole of lyricism. Lyric poetry isn’t delimited by statute to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Romantic and neo-Romantic writing. In order to find an acceptable theoretical basis for lyricism within the poetics of contemporary avant-garde criticism, and to enable the works themselves to remain socially and politically grounded and relevant, Susan Schultz has proposed a solution she terms the “voiceless lyric,” which in combination with Adorno’s social conscience can rescue lyricism for Buddhist language poets like Norman Fischer.
It was only natural for Norman to manifest a theoretical disdain for the neo-Romanticism and narrative referentiality of, say, the Beats, or the New York School writers. He thusly describes how he and his friends thought about the Beats back in the early 1970s: “We were self consciously another generation — we were not the New York poets (because we were from San Francisco, and that must be different) and we were not the Beats. We were not going to be the heroes of our own Romantic picaresque novels and poems.”
Some people see the poetics of the Beats, neo-Romanticism, and other “personally expressive plain-spoken voice-based poetry” that still dominates the production of poetry today at odds with the experimental, deconstructive, open language approach of contemporary language writers and their close descendants. Yet experimentalism with language is common throughout literary history. Scholars and critics typically mention Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and other modernists, and there are stark parallels with the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century. More recently there is the Zen monk-poet Philip Whalen, a writer who no fewer than three or four established language poets claim as a literary mentor and influence.
Norman Fischer’s literary influences and predecessors come through two distinct lineages, one Asian and Buddhist, and the other Euro-North American and Judeo-Christian. His immediate ancestors in the West include the monkish T. S. Eliot and the actually ordained monk-priests Thomas Merton and Philip Whalen. Going further back, Fischer continues a mystical or religious tradition that includes female writers, poets, and religious dissidents in the medieval period, like Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, plus St. Jerome, Meister Eckhart, and later Thomas Traherne and Gerard Manley Hopkins. With Fischer’s strong identification with Judaism, I would add the presumably multigendered authors of the Psalms, Revelations, other Old Testament texts, and Hebrew mystical poetry. This oracular, revealed, dissenting line migrates to Blake, Wordsworth, Ginsberg, Joanne Kyger, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman, and many other writers and artists.
The poetics of Whalen, ostensibly a certifiably Beat generation writer, don’t result in poetry that bears much resemblance to the work of his contemporaries. A humble but extraordinary genius, his literary offspring include a surprisingly wide range of talents, including people who were or are significant language writers such as Leslie Scalapino and her acolyte Denise Newman, large chunks of the New York School’s second generation including Alice Notley and Lewis Warsh, and more than several of the younger poets featured in Schelling’s important Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry.
Norman Fischer’s work is best described by Hank Lazer as part of a new spiritual realism that has developed in the past fifty years, first noted by Gertrude Stein in the 1935 essay “Poetry and Grammar,” which was a riposte to Emerson’s “The Poet.” Stein wanted to get writers to move away from Emerson’s focus on the poet’s transcendental relation to nature and divinity onto language itself, “in which a form of divinity resides, not wholly beyond words, but within them.” This is developed by Lazer and Fischer. Lazer describes his creative poiesis as investigative, spiritual, and heuristic:
a phenomenology of spiritual experience — a writing that engages momentary experience and that embodies particular intervals of consciousness.
My question is this: is the revisionist, dissenting impulse behind Fischer’s and Lazer’s accounts of their work different in effect from, say, Blake’s investigation and origination of new mythographic and religious systems in The Four Zoas?
I can’t help but regard this as individual poets grounded in their respective contextual histories, broadly speaking, doing similar work with different tools. Blake was probably the first major Romantic poet to pull traditional Indian religious imagery and theology into the European market in a concerted effort to liberate people from the onerous burden of state religion. Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and The Discharged Soldier are, in a sense, a continuation of Blake’s experiment. If you read these works closely, and if you have some detailed experience with an Eastern meditation practice like Zen, Tintern Abbey and The Discharged Soldier are suffused with a meditative depth that is uncanny, especially given that they were conceived and written not in Asia but in Britain in the last decade of the eighteenth century.
We know now that hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu texts were flooding intellectual and artistic circles in the main European capitals at this time. British missionaries, civil servants, and budding scholars were translating and interpreting significant works. The Schlegels were translating and publishing texts containing highly sophisticated Buddhist doctrines. This was the birth of the discipline of comparative religion, and Blake had direct access to some of these texts and commentaries through his patrons in the intelligentsia. The cultural, religious, and historico-literary connections between British Romanticism, Beat literature, language writing, and contemporary post-language Buddhist writers are close and rich.
Norman’s poem “Test Case” is a perfect poem in many ways, simple and meditative. In the first stanza the end of each line of verse disappears into the universe with no apparent relation to the next line, except that the next line is the next line, but is somehow dissevered or peripheral, connected merely by position. The poem begins, like a Terry Riley composition, with disparate opening chords:
It’s quiet or in the quiet
Where the tongues of disjunction lick the arms of affection
And one plus one’s not two
It doesn’t follow from this …
A stream-of-consciousness, Steinian phrasing is deployed, mimetic of the extreme random orderlessness of everyday consciousness. The three verse lines of the first stanza have no comparative relation to each other, engendering a feeling empty of ‘own-being’ (Buddhist psychology’s svā-bhāva); a feeling of zazen itself, a quiet meditation that’s either quiet, “or in the quiet.” I like how the slowly opening andante tempo turns to cold hard reality a few stanzas later:
My hard-earned cash
Your vaunted self-esteem —
This is all, after all, just thought’s river flowing.
Test case for being
In this little poem, “Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts [that] rarely come to terms … transitions, transmutations.” “Test Case,” then, is like life itself, and the poem is a self-reflexively demonstration, a test case (a koan?) of being itself.
In studying some of the other poems under consideration here — “Nothing Matters,” “Expensive Arrangement,” and “A Flatter Form of Research” — I am reminded of the Metaphysical poets John Donne and Thomas Traherne, and of their literary connection with a poet like Norman Fischer. Traherne’s descriptions of meditation are striking for their affinity with Zen practice. It has been said that the Metaphysical poets, like the language poets, adopted new verbal devices and technologies with considerable skill in order to distance themselves from the dominant classicist writers of their period. Yet even as they expanded the territorial reach of language, they were lineally related to some of their own close literary predecessors, and like Fischer and Eliot, the Metaphysicals wrote devotional poetry of “ecclesiastical solemnity.” Eliot sounds like a language writer here:
When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary …. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.
In The Metaphysical Poets, Eliot describes a zone where intellectual thought and meditation is separate from feelings, passions, and emotions, sounding intriguingly like Lazer’s “phenomenology of spiritual experience,” and Fischer’s linguistic open mind receptivity, which he describes as a highly sensitized state with physical manifestations, a radical openness that allows “a shape” or “a sense of form” to reach the writer, which he then writes from. Fischer describes his writing practice as an intellectual exercise that induces a “nearly physical sensation.” Eliot, too, saw in Chapman’s work a “direct sensuous apprehension of thought.”
Like probably all poets my writing comes out of reading, and reading may be a form of writing and vice versa. So I am reading something important to me and then at some point in reading I am drawn to writing. It is a nearly physical sensation that I have come to be very sensitive to. And along with it comes a shape, a sense of form … so that the writing begins with a shape or a form, which constellates a sound and a subject matter … a tone, a tone of voice.
Norman Fischer’s poetics, strongly influenced by Zen meditation, are closely cued to physical presence and felt sensation, as well as a focused mental presence and analytical, intellectual thinking. This practice is uncannily similar to Wordsworth’s description of meditative experience in Tintern Abbey, where a moment of samādhi (concentrated, trance-like consciousness) is a physically “felt” event, not merely intellectual, or linguistic:
… sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart (29)
In The Discharged Soldier, Wordsworth describes the experience again as felt physically, in the body, accompanied by a cessation of routine cognition, a “slumber of the sense,” “heard and felt.” As with Fischer, palpable forms and images arise in Wordsworth’s consciousness. It is straight out of traditional Soto Zen meditation, with some of the Romantic touchstones also encountered in Rousseau: a centripetal turn inwards, solitude, quietude, a study of origins, a careful use of language.
Certain mystical strains of Romanticism and its meditations are uncannily similar to the poetics espoused by Norman Fischer, and whether a self is required for self-expression or not is at least arguable. In classical Buddhist Mādhyamika dialectics there is the possibility that a human self exists, but at the same time, in an ultimate sense, no self self-exists on its own, and therefore we say there is no self, or that ultimately no self exists. The paradox here is the simple dialectical distinction between a conventional truth and an ultimate truth, which was developed by Mādhyamika logicians. Both in classical Buddhist philosophy and in certain poststructuralist accounts, no separate, independently existing, permanent self resides independently outside of or distinct from the frameworks of extensive biological, physical, and social networks. Yet at the conventional level many of us do, indeed, have driver’s licenses, social security cards, etc. We duly pay the bills that come to us with our names on them. That is, forms of identity have been assigned to our bodily presence in this world system, and we recognize and respond to them.
Conjointly, a writer sits down and with a pen, a computer keyboard, or a tape recorder, and “writes” words down which become a poem, a letter, a story, a screenplay. It’s not that there is no authorial self, it’s just that the person behind the pen, the keyboard, etc., is ungraspable. The self’s observable and inferred existential bases, biological, psychological, and physical, are constantly shifting, changing, dissolving, and undergoing re-creation or rebirth, if you will. We are not the same person we were back then; we were never totally individualized to begin with because we were born entirely dependent biologically and socially. We are never entirely individualized in exactly the same way from each epoch of our lives to the next. So when Norman writes,
There’s no self or person, just what arises … writing is words,
how they sound, how they look lying on the page.
he is taking the absolute position, the position of ultimate prajña (wisdom). Whereas, a bodhisattva also works with beings (audiences, political events, society, suffering, etc.) from the position of karuña (compassion), which entails a Buddhist practicing in relativity, including the relativity of imagined or posited selfhood, and individuated suffering.
For me, Fischer’s “Nothing Matters” is a definitively Buddhist poem resting squarely within the Western tradition of religious poetry. It strongly echoes T. S. Eliot’s somber, monkish Four Quartets. Repetition is a critical tool in both poems, creating a metronomic effect, and adding a surface tension to a disturbingly sustained focus on death and the severe brevity of life. Fischer’s repetition of “nothing matters,” repeated six times, and “in the end,” “at the end,” and “end,” repeated seven times, stir buried memories of the “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker” sections of the Quartets. In those works Eliot can’t resist repetition of words like “end,” “beginning,” “die,” “time,” “dark,” “darkness,” and “ashes.” This excerpt is from the last stanza of “Burnt Norton”:
Love is itself unmoving
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.
It’s interesting that where Eliot says “love,” Fischer says “affection.” Eliot points out that love is the cause and end of life, causal of human form (birth), which occurs between non-being and being. Fischer also implicates love and marriage. He seems to address his wife with deeply personal, unsettling questions, questions which, by implication, may also be addressed to his family, and to the wider Buddhist sangha (community) that he is responsible for as a Zen teacher and former abbot.
There is a sacramental (and sacerdotal) quality in both poems, and in Fischer’s the sure-footed intimacy of a husband, a father, an abbot, and a priest counseling his flock in a sermon:
Did you expect
To go on
Forever, that we would
Go on forever
That there would be
No end to us
Our life here
In the long second stanza of “East Coker” Eliot also invokes the sacrament of marriage, in a traditional peasant ceremony staged in a field outside an ancient English village. Fischer extols love as the highest good, but Eliot, a more pessimistic monk, blames love for initiating the wheel of birth and death in the first place. “Who then devised the torment?” he asks, answering himself: “Love.” Eliot may have been tormented by love, but for Fischer it is the soteriological path in life.
The affection between people, between lovers, between spouses, amongst family and among all human beings transcends suffering. This is for Fischer the one great good that withstands time’s ravages and overrides the dark sadness of the Four Quartets. It’s more a metaphysical poem than a language poem, transcending the similar but rather nihilistic and solipsistic verses crooned by the rock band Queen in the superb 1975 work “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “Nothing really matters — to me,” Freddie Mercury wails, and the song (for me) infiltrates the space of Fischer’s poem. But Fischer doesn’t literally mean nothing matters, but rather that in the thick of it, everything matters so much, and the most important things matter most, namely affection, love, the quality of the affection.
He finishes off this poem with an allusion to Four Quartets, counseling that rather than live our lives saddened and inhibited by the extinction of self and consciousness that is surely coming soon, savor this, see this life as satisfactory, please see in your end a satisfactory completion:
Find the end
In the beginning
Savor that, its force
A satisfactory completion
I am going to finish with the poem “Expensive Arrangements,” an extraordinarily weird and evocative poem that I find profoundly and politically anarchic. “Expensive Arrangements” is constructed of fifteen simple and very concise two-line stanzas, beginning rather suddenly in the middle of a descriptive narrative, a narrative of address where we, the reader or listener, are inserted without introduction into a Kafkaesque colloquy. It is dreamlike, and somebody, a narrator, is describing a strange place, a bizarre system that is actually here and now:
It is indicative of the loose arrangements
That apply in this place
That those who pose as bosses
Don’t really know any better
… — all about
Themselves they heap their ribbons
And these flow on as if crystalline into the bare and tidy
Nights that give us all pause
And not a little glow, so that our friends
Can better see us as we leave
In a series of city blocks, arranged like long pegs
In baize drawers …
“Expensive Arrangements” can be read as an Adornoesque parable on the pervasive un-freedom of late capitalism in mature imperial democracies. No one knows what is going on; power is difficult to understand, leveraged at a great distance from ordinary lives. It is indicative of the nature of these massive and over-bearing structures of power, explains the narrator, that the elites are poseurs, they “pose as bosses,” but they know nothing. They only happen to have their hands on the controls, the money, the arrangements, because of the randomness of evil and the randomness of events, where they went to school, who their parents were, their class position. The award-winning elites are heaped with ribbons of ‘success,’ while we are the piglets of Animal Farm, the automatons of Brave New World. We exit our workplaces to monotonously arranged city blocks that enforce conformity as the sign over the door intones “COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.” The blocks are tidy and featureless; architecture mimics political system. Workers consume messages and file straight-jacketed to the next mass injustice, the next horror, the next holocaust.
These first six stanzas establish the parameters of a discourse that breaks in the seventh to the revolutionary statement I pass by sometimes in Brooklyn, hand-painted on an abandoned building: “Open Your Eyes.” The shift comes at the rigid linear structures of the “baize drawers,” simultaneously kicking off the next section:
In baize drawers one loses track too quickly
Of the sense of things
The purpose for which this little hunting party
Has been organized
Which is why the others
Long for such clarified sentences
They want the clear demarcations
That money as money, hefty money
Would provide and do not see the colorists
Are making themselves out to be
Anything but what they are …
The hunting party hunts for the real “sense of things,” beyond the grammar and logic of established structures of power. This is a strong reading in the sense that I am pushing the poem’s dialectic into the open, and maybe it is a dialectic that only I see. Yet the work’s eerie totalitarian environment seems to beg an interpretative reading that is not only political, but also spiritually and artistically rebellious, a secular soteriology if you will, a call to arms against the crystalline ribbons and the tidy, empty nights. Perhaps Fischer’s challenge is personal and spiritual, as well as intrinsically political. Outside the realms of state power, state religion, and corporate mass media, “If you stretch this cloth any tighter / I think surely your bell will crack.”
5. Hank Lazer interviews Norman Fischer in The Argotist Online, 2010. The full text is available online.
theprecession.org and languages of the Internet populace
The Precession, Judd Morrissey and Mark Jeffery’s newest project, redefines literary creation as intertwined acts of writing, composing, and viewing/reading work on the Internet, as well as collaboration and performance. The entire process makes a series of exciting suggestions about how electronic writing in particular can be translated into innovative and significant performances either on your own computer screen, projected into and onto various spaces, or interacted with as a live event.
A new screen
Morrissey and Jeffery use the idea of the website as both a nexus and a prompt for many other community-based activities in the world, continually connecting the experience of navigating language on the Internet to encounters with words and actions in other environments. At an April 2011 talk at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Morrissey explained: “We thought of The Precession as a structured fluidity that could be realized at multiple sites and in multiple contexts. Wherever we worked or performed, we integrated the architectural environment, volunteers from the local community, the positions of celestial bodies overhead, and online activity within our vicinity as revealed by geo-coded Twitter feeds.” Their process ultimately exposes a continuum normally perceived as separate modes of media that we enter in various situations in an increasingly electronic world.
As a piece of literature, theprecession.org connects the social context of reading on the Internet to the traditional question of how form provides meaning to content. The piece is specifically engineered to use language in very particular ways as a test within/against the context in which it is presented. The multiple elements of the duo’s practice — travel and experience, writing, programming, performance, and documentation (both of experiences and performances) — suggest the act of making art as a powerful analog for action in the world: civic action, exploration, and participation in the world, and the subsequent creation of community. Examined on its own, theprecession.org is a data stream presented in the language of tweets and poetry that continually updates the results of these experiences. It demonstrates that discovery of meaning in the world is a constantly shifting balance between our social context and the personal agency we employ as interpreting it: theprecession.org is a long performance on the Internet that is entered through the small portal of a click that leads to a new window that becomes an endless parallel to our ongoing lives. The element of time that evolves during a reading of this work is particularly effective in evoking a sense of irresistible involvement. The piece becomes self-referential and ironic, evolving and surprising. At its core, theprecession.org is aware of its own context in our current orientation in media, and therefore necessitates a similar awareness on the part of its readers. This is a gesture that places participants precariously, yet precisely, between current and culturally specific positions of consuming information and producing meaning.
In “Personism: A Manifesto,” Frank O’Hara talks about the importance of writing with an awareness of available surrounding technologies, and the poem’s social impact. He recounts that “[w]hile I was writing it I was realizing that if wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem.” A generation later, theprecession.org effectively acts as the telephone writing the poem instead; the act is similarly decisive in its acute awareness of the involvement of even surrounding media technologies in the understanding of any writing. Considered as a poem, the text of theprecession.org implements many basic ideas from the same poetic tradition as O’Hara’s in terms of how form operates in conjunction with content. In the twentieth century, O’Hara was vocal about poetry as a practice in reaction to social opportunities to communicate. He exclaimed in “Personism” that as “[i]t puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person … [t]he poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.” This rendering of the page as transcended by its words suggests a curious irony in the relationship between material conditions of communication and any direct connection between people. We adapt to the increasingly complicated dilemma of more mediation that both promises and threatens our relationships to others.
Here, theprecession.org occupies a space that is similarly “squarely between the poet and the person,” but under very (appropriately) different circumstances. Its formal gestures address new contexts of information streaming from screens, from multiple sources to multiple sources, rather than from one voice to several readers who are supposedly eavesdropping on a personal communication rendered in poetic form. Rather, theprecession.org has a different attitude and approach to the personal, seeking to address the individual as a social entity. The precedent for working with context is carried over from O’Hara, but in a new setting, the poetics accompany a different kind of pace, pattern, and placement, elements that primarily challenge our reading habits both visually and cognitively, rather than the idea of any immediate or simply amplified connection with one other person. Rather, the poem seems to reflect the form and language of information as a social material that each of us must determine our relationship to. We may wonder about authorship, or we may accept its example of the power of language that’s perpetuated by its own momentum, kept in motion by a constant urban hum, dropping its detritus at our electronic doorsteps every so often as questionable “communication.” Following this rule, once a group of words attains a kind of critical mass in the chapter “POLI,” it fades until almost out of sight, lingering only enough to maintain a sense that it happened.
In order to slowly build up to such moments of catharsis, the first moments of encountering theprecession.org are constructed carefully for an acclimation to the abstract environment of the website. After making a simple initial click, our eyes are directed in constant motion by broad Art Deco striped blocks in basic movements we later learn are inspired from such O’Hara-era political architecture as the embellishments of the Hoover Dam. In a sort of training round, it becomes clear that the eye is obedient and trusting, eager and adept at changing environments and fluctuating rates. Inevitably, these acclimations might change our perception of how time passes around us as we center ourselves in a new normalcy. After all, the website is generative and ongoing. Once inside, we may realize that our point of entry was a curiously unifying start (a chorus of sound bars in a circle flickering like a birth canal coming into focus) for what follows as a very personal and critical experience full of choices (more like conscious life). Therefore, theprecession.org is concerned with the same kind of immediacy and accurate reflection of real-life circumstances that O’Hara was also sure could lead to a paradigm shift in poetry. O’Hara declares, “I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it.” This kind of flippancy is followed up with the equally hyperbolic and sarcastic, equal parts superior and defeatist statement that personism “is too new, too vital a movement to promise anything.” If as writers our point of focus is split, always, between working within a genre and innovating, theprecession.org provides a necessary precedent that fuses concerns of contemporary poetics for the page as well as for the screen by addressing the basic notion of both as media.
So then the page as a site now is not old news, but a new screen. While Morrissey and Jeffery use the languages of popular media to create the poetry in theprecession.org on the platform of web technologies, the piece explores the contours and possibilities of the square space as always capable of manipulation in new ways. When animated, literature on the Internet necessarily references and joins with newer media like television, and it fuses our social faculties, eliciting hybrid and totally new forms of writing and reading; theprecession.org in particular is generative, accurately reflecting how we track our identities on screen perpetually. Such methods offer a new standard for writing in contemporary contexts, whether they are electronic or traditional. The specific use of the Web as a type of theater anticipates the kinds of expectations that readers have in contemporary, popular, interactive, yet mediated forums.
The provocation of awareness of certain contexts in the work itself coincides with the call to artists that Marshall McLuhan makes in his media theory of the mid-1960s. McLuhan’s book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man seems to have emerged from both fear and excitement of the seemingly total permeation of television in the American household, and becomes both warning and user’s manual. Describing television as the latest advancement in media, McLuhan makes a strong case for how media, which always evolves with technological advancements, provides a strong and unconscious undercurrent for the status quo in Western society. Therefore, in his introduction, he writes that “technologies begin to perform the function of art in making us aware of the psychic and social consequences of technology.” By the end of the introduction, he is urging us to prioritize art as part of the experience of culture in order to better orient ourselves in the chaos of industrialized living:
The power of the arts to anticipate future social and technological developments, by a generation and more, has long been recognized. In this century, Ezra Pound called the artist ‘the antennae of the race.’ Art as radar acts as ‘an early alarm system,’ as it were, enabling us to discover social and psychic targets in lots of time to prepare to cope with them. This concept contrasts with the popular idea of them as mere self-expression.
McLuhan outlines the evolution of media from oral forms to television in order to expose a continuity of cultural needs that media always responds to, for better or for worse. He is famous for insisting that the definition of media is better understood as a tangible medium for cultural information, and that it always influences large populations of people mostly in ways beyond its content. So, most importantly, media creates modes of reception that respond to and mimic the most current technologies and ultimately define demographics and ideologies.
Following McLuhan’s lead, in the early 1990s critic Craig Saper examined the role of the computer in art making in the age of electronics. In his article “Electronic Media Studies: From Video Art to Artificial Invention,” he asserts:
the computer user follows the contours of a thought built on computational commands. The system mirrors something called cognition — the abstract rules of supposedly pure unadulterated thought. Or, more precisely, the screen mirrors cognitivism’s pop-comical description of human minds as algorithmic computational code machines.
Undoubtedly, this shift to reading material on a computer, not to mention reading literature or experimental poetry on one, or even the idea of reading something on the Internet, adds a new level to how we understand what we are reading. Saper’s point that we adapt our mode of reading, or roving for information, to a modified reception that adjusts its rate to one that the computer directs, adds to McLuhan’s initial observations about our ability to locate patterns in an increasingly mediated world. However, Saper argues that our thoughts become more digital-like, and that our cognition begins to “mirror” how the computer is modeling the world. This suggestion complicates any notion of responsibility that McLuhan had initially suggested for the artist in terms of the form used to mimic media, how the artist might use this form to effectively communicate a message about media itself. Works like theprecession.org that incorporate consciousness of the context of its own writing, and the precise role of the reader, are bound to incite a reader to consider the actual real-time experience with that work.
Poetry, in contrast to regular everyday media, has always had the reputation of using language in a way that deviates from common usage in order to provide critical perspectives for society. In his introduction to The Politics of Poetic Form, Charles Bernstein claims that “the formal dynamics of a poem shape its ideology; more specifically, … radically innovative poetic styles can have political meanings.” Poetry always acts as media, and has the potential to be the kind of meta-media that McLuhan asked for: a heightened practice whose consciously constructed form might convey stronger messages than its content. McLuhan insists that the artist is the key to, and must focus on providing, the necessary insight for people surrounded by and actively using media. Similarly, Charles Bernstein insists that “[p]oetry remains an unrivaled arena for social research into the (re)constitution of the public and the (re)construction of discourse.” The best new poetry often comments ironically on the multiple genres (social, economic, political and literary) that produce the contemporary context of the act of writing. These projects tend to sample language from media and test it out as poetry, asking readers to adopt a dual awareness that highlights its reception, and therefore heightens the impact of the content.
Morrissey and Jeffery’s theprecession.org, and the chapter “POLI” in particular, engage this vein of interaction based on the particular qualities of our reception of language. Certain modes that constitute our shared approach to the centers of language are met with a form in the piece. And, each element of the piece remains unique, like a person among people in the space of society.
Images from theprecession.org are projected onto the Hyde Park Art Center during a performance in March 2011. © John Sisson Photography.
Upon first arriving at the website
A new window opens. Like a cover, a circle of sound files appear to create the circle over and over at an increasing rate. Snippets of archived files are translated by a computer voice program into parts of phrases and words. We are surrounded by fragments, continually translated from other realms and times.
Diorite. Rock. Origins of the word from the early nineteenth century. Bars containing sound files disappear and are replaced by a circle of sentences that extend like rays from a center, based on the original formation of the sounds. We are leaving the area of the aural and entering the timeframe of the book. The center shifts and the circle moves around the page.
A little time later, two figures appear like hieroglyphs surrounding angular fonts that resemble bricks. A line appears every so often and then disappears. As I write, I see the book shifting behind the page. As I stop my own writing to check in on the state of the site, letters are being offered up onto a screen. They form into circles of their own accord, owing to an ever present center of gravity.
“Bricks fell to announce that they had fallen.” In some sort of post-literary world, when “literary” is only defined by the book, action exists to cause our accounts of it. An announcement is meant to cause a sort of pause in the pattern, even as it persists. There is a return to the pattern. I click on an “L” in the center of the rays, and it brings me back through what has happened to the beginning, centered around a symbol for money.
It is moving forward with or without me. Is this still the Diorite? As static and still as we assign? Is this the brick? Put in place where we want it? I decide to intervene. I click on the word “Diorite.” A golden thumbprint in the center of black building blocks on a white screen. It allows me to click on its center, which initiates a shift. I click on the symbol for money. A black screen with a thumbprint that builds itself out of golden letters that overlap. This is perhaps our shared identifying mark. I wait. “Bricks fell to announce that they had fallen, rather.” I wait. These chapters refer to my prior reading. They are an archive of what has been read. I click on an “O.” The screen turns black. I wait. The chapters disappear.
Mark Jeffery during a performance of The Precession at the Hyde Park Arts Center in March 2011. © John Sisson Photography.
“To change the material artifact”
Within this format of questionable divisions that overlap and shift, the book is redefined as it is translated from its traditional physical form into a conceptual entity of readable spaces in new media. Then, “chapters” become more fluid organizational units rather than static ones, and previously passive divisions are activated as performances of traditions in transition. The piece is continuous, circular, and potentially endless, a metaphor for the conversation between older and newer forms.
The jump to using a computer as an element in the composition of literature, not merely to transcribe it, was the invention of a new genre. As with the inception of many new genres, electronic literature is the fusion of a more traditional genre with a new technology, responding to a new need in the community for a more accurate perspective on our current world. N. Katherine Hayles outlines the history of electronic literature from the late 1980s in her seminal survey, Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, and mentions Morrissey’s earlier piece The Jew’s Daughter prominently. Hayles shows that the form of electronic works have been extremely varied from the beginning, owing to the fact that these writers have often chosen to include reflective commentaries on the traditional act of writing, on conventional genres, and on the role of new media in writing and in our lives. Such projects elevate the reader’s awareness of context, and elicit an entirely new mode of meaning. In her more personal and experimental project Writing Machines, Hayles suggests:
To change the material artifact is to transform the context and circumstances for interacting with the words, which inevitably changes the meanings of the words as well. This transformation of meaning is especially potent when the words reflexively interact with the inscription technologies that produce them.
An extremely current project, theprecession.org is particularly concerned with our reception of units of information in time, our apprehension of how language congregates and aggregates around us, and our specific orientation in a field of stimulus and information. After entering the website and being given a thorough orientation for our eyes to the kind of movement that will be required of them here, we might arrive at the chapter “POLI.” The play on the term POLI in this central poem reveals a fascination with the juxtaposition between larger social structures and the most basic units of life. Polis is a Greek root meaning both the city and its citizens, and poli is the human gene responsible for the production of a DNA enzyme. The title then serves as a catalyst for the understanding of the poem on both its macro and micro levels. Words and letters are scattered across the screen, making patterns that both challenge and facilitate comprehension. So, most importantly, the reader is involved in a real-time construction of meaning with fragments of language structures that appear in electronic environments. Readers must use their own sense of synthesis to create an accurate representation of the haphazard apprehension of the world.
It’s important to note that an experience of poli can occur over a period of minutes, hours, days, or even months. When I first loaded it up, I had the immediate sense that the poem had its own timeframe, which I could access in a range of degrees between how I was directed into it and what my own timeframe was urging me to do. Further, the pace of the language as it appeared on the screen reminded me that all writing always exists in two sets of time: that of its own making, and that of the reader’s discovery. As digital technology allows us increasingly individualized control over our environments, our relationship to language becomes more personal as well. Surfing for the most personally relevant material, we use language to process the information that we select, and we then change ourselves in order to cope with knowledge and experience. How this process effects a particular notion of orientation in time and relative place is a central metaphor anchored by a definition of precession provided by Morrissey and Jeffery in a video documentation of rehearsals for a performance of the piece: the Earth’s axis tilts one degree every seventy-two years, roughly a lifetime. Interpreting the movements in space by Morrissey and Jeffery around projections of the poem, we may decide that we must follow what we perceive to be the center of our world as it shifts, and we are constantly reorienting ourselves as our understanding of our surroundings adapts, even if we might not notice it happening.
Images from a performance of The Precession at the Hyde Park Arts Center in March 2011. © John Sisson Photography.
Starting point: summer 2009. The poem seems centered on our reception of images from the media about “real” boyhood. People are tweeting about Harry Potter and there’s a lot here about Pinocchio. There’s no such thing as a real boy or a magic boy or a boy who is not real but still walking around.
A little while later Tiger Woods is I guess who everyone is tweeting about. The boy seems to have grown into a man. But maybe not a real man (he is another male representation in the media).
“A feather at the top of the stairs, a father.” Genealogical material determines not only gender, but changes in language. Remove a letter and you have the difference between a word and a person. A representation.
“Chorus: keep misreading.” Language overlapping and the Internet’s always moving. Literary form might naturally gravitate into a design that imitates life forms. A deep pattern may now generate or dictate life.
I say go further and congregate. Lay down tracks that cross and split. Enter an inner space that spirals out. Find a reflection that’s not you. Top off the afternoon with a trip to the Hoover Dam. See frozen angels perched there.
A point on an analogous arc
Each manifestation of theprecession.org demonstrates a poetics of immediacy and direct address. On the site, programming is concerned with the ways that the population who logs on assimilates language according to its expectations of how it will appear. Performances acclimate to the expectations of a live audience and adapt the project’s core issues to engage the present tense of presence, live action of bodies, and utterance in a space. A video “documentation record” of a rehearsal of The Precession, posted on Vimeo, is edited meticulously to fit appropriately to its medium and location as a short video on a video sharing site, and quickly transcends documentation to become video art. The video shows Morrissey and Jeffery rehearsing the performance elements of the piece, and cuts produce palpable effects of active decision-making by the videomaker, another collaborator. Before it plays, the video presents itself as a screen shot of a quote by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the project’s trademark architectural yellow font for the piece: “I hope that you will pardon me for the unusual posture of sitting down during the presentation of what I want to say, but I know that you will realize it makes it a lot easier for me in not having to carry about ten pounds of steel on the bottom of my legs.” Roosevelt’s words serve as an indirect reference to the immobilization and weight that we are all currently subjected to by the conditions of media: remember that you sit yourself down to be shackled to a metal computer or TV, and keep in mind that even as we sit to watch or listen to anything as an audience we are bound by a cultural contract that includes our momentary passivity. Roosevelt’s disclaimer suggests a premise of self-awareness that, as the video begins, immediately fractures into a kaleidoscope of lines of text and audio play bars criss-crossing a computer screen. As the camera angle widens, we see two large projection screens, each with the same image, that create an amplified fracture. As the camera begins to pan, Jeffery and Morrissey create embodied translations of the phrases in the poem. Doing so, they curiously question the meaning of the moment in a piece of art. In a live performance, this is an immediate experience, but in a poem, each line may serve as a “moment” in which the reader ciphers a bit of meaning. Using the website during the performance, they directly challenge and exercise our expectations of the physical aspects and timing that we rely on to parse information by directly juxtaposing our experiences in different modes. At first, Jeffery stands on a chair holding a mic on a stand out to Morrissey, who speaks into it obediently. However, Jeffery soon sweeps the mic out into an arc that traces the diameter of the performance space they’ve created, which forces Morrissey to follow it. In the next scene, they’ve switched places. With these simple and effective gestures, the viewer becomes a point on an analogous arc, and, when we examine our own position, we find that we are in a similar array of conditions. And what are our external signals for change? After all, about two and a half minutes into the eleven-minute video, the seminal quote appears on the screen: “Every 72 years / The Earth’s axis / tilts 1 degree / this tilting is / called precession.” We are quietly caught up as the focus of a parallax that places us in paradox: subject to the rules that gave rise to us, but with some access to the agency that our social conditions provide.
In Writing Machines, N. Katherine Hayles makes the claim (and the call) that
[l]iterary works that strengthen, foreground, and thematize the connections between themselves as material artifacts and the imaginative realm of verbal/semiotic signifiers they instantiate open a window on the larger connections that unite literature as a verbal art to its material forms …. [T]echnotexts play a special role in transforming literary criticism into a material practice, for they make vividly clear that the issues at stake are nothing less than a full-bodied understanding of literature.
Hayles, a critic who fuses the concerns of McLuhan’s media theory and Bernstein’s poetics, sets a theoretical precedent that is fulfilled by The Precession: an expansive and utterly creative project that experiments with forms, expectations, and manifestations of our relationships to action, language, writing, and art. I find the ground that is opened up for other electronic writers or performers to be extremely exciting, but what I find even more significant is the equal challenge that it holds for writers who use the page as their screen. Moves like the ones that theprecession.org makes with form and language are poetic gestures that should be especially inviting, and not intimidating, to all those who continue to work with text in space. The screen and the page are not so separated by technology that they can’t both be seen as sites related in their unique potentials for considerations of movement, experimentation with form, attention to time spent there, and meanings that emerge from play with these material conditions.
Stanley Burnshaw, one of America’s most versatile, influential, and longlived men of letters, was born in New York City on June 20, 1906, to Ludwig Bernstein, an immigrant from Latvia, and his Russian-born wife, Sonya. Burnshaw (his Anglicized name was taken from an English relative) grew up in Pleasantville, NY, where his father had established an innovative cottage-style orphanage for destitute Jewish children. Ludwig’s philanthropic example deeply impressed his son, as did the communitarian arrangement of the orphanage. Burnshaw would later see this experiment writ large in the kibbutzim of Israel, and his commitment to socialism and Zionism — the first fading with the years, and the second unflagging although ultimately pessimistic — was naturally set.
Burnshaw received his BA from the University of Pittsburgh in 1925. He found work writing advertising copy for a steel products company, Blaw-Knox, but he was set on a literary career. Its first fruit was a slender Poems (1927), and, with money saved from his job as well as his father’s support, he made the ritual pilgrimage to France in 1927–28. Here he met his first literary mentor, Andre Spire, whose work he was to translate and champion; and it was here, too, while walking a beach on the Riviera, that he experienced the revelatory moment that was to structure his subsequent career. It was not until his mature masterwork, The Seamless Web (1970) that he was able to fully express it discursively, although it appears from his early poetry onward, perhaps most pithily (and lyrically) in “Bread”:
This that I give you now,
This bread that your mouth receives,
Never knows that its essence
Slept in the hanging leaves
Of a waving wheatfield thriving
With the sun’s light, soil, and the rain,
A season ago, before knives
And wheels took life from grain
That leaf might be flour — and the flour
Bread for the breathers’ need …
Nor cared that some night one breather
Might watch how each remnant seed
Invades the blood, to become
Your tissue of flesh, and molests
Your body’s secrets, swift-changing
To arms and mounds of your breasts,
To thigh, hand, hair, to voices,
Your heart and your woman’s mind …
For whatever the bread, do not grieve now
That soon a flash of the wind
May hurry away what remains
Of this quiet valiance of grass:
It entered your body, it fed you
So that you too can pass
From valiance to quiet, from thriving
To silenced flesh, and to ground:
Such is our meager cycle
That turns but a single round
For the deathless flesh of the earth,
For the signless husks of men dead,
For the folded oceans and mountains,
For birds, and fields, and for bread.
Burnshaw’s vision is here one of the “round” of interconnectedness and transformation by which matter takes the form of life and returns to its original state, a ceaseless process in which man and his world are “folded.” From this comes a profound ecological consciousness, and a sense of perpetual becoming that is as close to a religious reconciliation with the terms of life as agnosticism can yield. Sixty years later, in “Argon,” he would restate it a last time: “So long as leaf and flesh – / Fed on each other’s cast-out breath – / Nourish the oceans of lower sky: so long // As lip-sealed earth fulfils / Its sun-warmed captive circle, drink, / O drink while we may the forever imprisoned air.” Materialism is here, as in Empedocles and Lucretius, the ground of spirit, the link that holds us to our sanity and health. The “imprisoned air” is our freedom, for it is only within it that we can survive, and our planet’s wellbeing is our own. Darwinian perception darkens this vision; there are, as Burnshaw notes in “Argon,” “Killers” too among us of natural necessity, and the scythes and threshers that bring in the harvest of “Bread” also acknowledge the violence that life rests on. There is no alternative to this, and what Burnshaw in a late essay calls “planetary maturity” depends on it. Our difficulty, as he suggests, lies in a double bind: the fearful, “terrified radiance” from which our earliest consciousness sprang; and the sophisticated, lifedenying despair to which its exacerbated modern forms are prey, and which, having resulted in the suicidal world wars of Burnshaw’s own youth and early manhood, led at their farthest stretch to the genocidal attempts to exterminate whole populations, human and animal alike.
For the young Burnshaw, socialism offered the best prospect of human reconstruction. While working at another advertising job, for Hecht’s in New York, he pursued a master’s degree at Cornell, which he received in 1933. His hopes of a teaching position were dashed by the Depression, and doubtless by the anti-Semitism still pervasive in academia as well. Publishing was a fallback option, and it was to prove a career. Burnshaw joined the Marxist Modern Monthly as a contributing editor, and then the staff of New Masses, the leading leftist periodical in the country. Christina Stead described him in his office as “a neat, limber young man with clear large appraising eyes” that seemed to take in the world from a distance. He was nonetheless very much engaged in it, laying out the magazine’s issues as well as writing for them, running an art show and a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall, and lecturing on literature, culture, and fascism. At the same time he was making his own name in the literary world, publishing Andre Spire and His Poetry in 1933 and a verse cycle, The Iron Land, in 1936. The latter book, containing “Bread,” but chiefly devoted to depicting the bleak world of Pennsylvania mill workers, marked the apogee of his political commitment:
Rise unrisen millions, hurl your answer,
Bend no more your bleeding shoulders of hope
But lift your head; break the air with your singing:
Fling your sun out of the iron ground.
(“Invocation to the Unrisen”)
The chief episode of Burnshaw’s career at New Masses arose from his critical review in October 1935 of Wallace Stevens’s longawaited second book, Ideas of Order. Stevens was stung by Burnshaw’s criticism of the rarefied “crystallography” of his verse, which, he said, “people concerned with the murderous world collapse can hardly swallow today except in tiny doses.” Stevens responded with a lengthy, seven-part poem, “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue,” in which the latter, and the further images it generates, appears to stand for the process and product of the poetic imagination. At the same time, he may seem to yield a point in the poem’s opening lines:
The thing is dead … Everything is dead
Except the future. Always everything
That is is dead except what ought to be.
“The thing” remains unspecified; it might refer to anything from the imagination as such to present reality to the whole of the human past. It might be all of these things, since “Everything is dead / Except the future.” That line can certainly be read in a political context, but also as a renewed validation of the imaginary. The ambiguity continues into the next line’s affirmation of “what ought to be,” which might or might not include the claims of social justice.
Critics are generally of the view today that Stevens’s later poetry reflects a greater social consciousness if not engagement, and that this represents a modification of his aesthetic. Burnshaw modestly disclaimed credit for this, although some have given it to him. In commenting on the affair in a 1961 article for the Sewanee Review, he claimed “not the slightest pride of authorship” in his review. Still, it continued to resonate, and as late as 1989 Burnshaw was invited to address the Wallace Stevens Society on the subject.
The irony of this episode is that Burnshaw was himself conflicted about the relationship between his political commitments and his own poetry. He left New Masses in 1936 — on amicable terms — to go into the publishing career that would occupy him for the next three decades, first with the Cordon Company, then with the Dryden Press (1939–1958), of which he was founder and publisher, and finally, after the sale of the press, as a senior Vice President at Henry Holt (1958–1965). In this latter capacity he served as Robert Frost’s editor, and developed a close relationship with the elder poet in his last years. Frost turned to Burnshaw for protection from Lawrance Thompson, whose official biography he feared would undermine his reputation. The apprehension was justified; the Frost of Thompson’s pages was callous to the point of moral monstrosity, and Burnshaw would later attempt to correct the record in his memoir, Robert Frost Himself (1986).
Apart from his work at New Masses and his essay on Spire, Burnshaw had been chiefly a poet in his early years. Between 1936 and 1942, however, he went largely silent. The pressure of work was no doubt one element; he worked sixteen-hour days at the Dryden Press while getting it off the ground. He himself has noted the prolonged depression into which the loss of an infant daughter threw him at the time, and for which his business labors may have been a partial antidote. It is likely that the tension between his politics and his art was a factor as well. He wrote in any case no more political poems such as those of The Iron Land. When he published again, in 1944, it was a verse addressed to Walt Whitman. A daughter, Valerie, had been born to him in 1940, and he reflected on this in “Thoughts of War and My Daughter.” Its background was not, however, the ideological stakes of the 1930s, which Popular Front politics was still promoting, but the nightmare of the Holocaust, of which no Jewish father could be unaware.
In addressing Whitman as an iconic figure, Burnshaw was trying in the 1940s to situate the poet as one who could be simultaneously true to his own vision and yet a full sharer in the quest for a better world. Whitman’s democratic openness was both a strength and a weakness, for it left him in the unsatisfactory stance of every prophet whose time, of necessity, goes by. If Whitman was representative, it was not as one who had achieved a final significance, but rather as one who had made an offering of his own best self without subterfuge or evasion — the faults he had seen in Stevens. This was the gift of personality to the collective endeavor, for, as Burnshaw wrote, there was “no final answer / If they deny the mind its birthright freedom / To range all worlds of sense or thought or vision.” Candor, in the widest sense, was the poet’s obligation, and freedom was its essential condition — of the person himself, and of the society to which he spoke.
Burnshaw made this poem the preface to his verse drama, The Bridge (1945), his first published work in nine years, and one in which he continued to work out his sense of human destiny in opposition to the “Perfect, bloodless technicians” who would reduce it to pattern and dogma. A theme that would recur in his later work is sounded by one of the play’s characters, who declares near the end that “The race of man wakes to its childhood now.” The prehistory of human infancy was not to be displaced by a programmatic utopia, but was only the beginning of a journey across a “bridge” that must be constructed as it was being crossed.
Burnshaw’s other major work of the decade was a novel, The Sunless Sea (1948), whose heroine recoils from being spat upon by a monkey at the zoo. Though this work is less overtly concerned with politics and the human future than The Bridge or The Revolt of the Cats in Paradise (1945), a verse satire on utopias contemporary with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, it does deal provocatively with the issue of the human flight from animal origins and its implications for our cohabitation with our evolutionary peers. But Burnshaw’s most significant commitment remained to poetry, and, although “Walt Whitman” would be the only poem he published in a periodical between 1936 and 1952, in the latter year a new collection appeared, Early and Late Testament (Dial Press). This would be followed by a further volume, Caged in an Animal’s Mind (Holt, 1963), and a summative one, In the Terrified Radiance (Braziller, 1972). Each of these books contains material from previous ones (hence the “Early Testament,” which includes material from The Iron Land), as well as translations— in Burnshaw’s parlance, “second-hand poems” — by Spire and others. They are, in short, a cumulative project, as well as a record of the author’s successive approaches to it.
That project, if one can suggest its amplitude, is to describe the emergence of the human itself, the ripening of consciousness, and the acquisition of moral value and responsibility. The Preamble to “Early and Late Testament” (“Time of Brightness”) sets the issue in the form of a quest for the aboriginal sources of mind:
What was it
Prodded your sleep into waking, shaped in your tongue
Word to be said to earth, your discovered home,
Syllables of serenity such as a man
Sure in belief could say to a more-than-beloved
The “more-than-beloved” is the earth, a home “discovered” only after long occupation; and yet, as the image suggests, it is a human beloved as well, since what we discover is not a bare frame but a dwelling, where consciousness is met by its kind. Thus it is that man finds the world as part of a dialectical process that involves the recognition of others in it, and thus it is that one must rather search for the world “Through tedious streets than to dream at an ocean’s edge,” i.e., through aesthetic contemplation alone (ibid.). In binding the search for origins to the quest for love in the present, Burnshaw restates his commitment to the political in its broadest sense. The poet cannot savor his private consciousness — the objection he had voiced to Stevens — but must rather regard it as an instrument of knowledge in the world.
As Burnshaw suggests in Caged in an Animal’s Mind, our progress is not out of Eden but up from it, since that is the place where the first Otherness was shaped in the recognition of human helplessness and contingency. We called it God, and found in it the overwhelming source of both terror and comfort, the friend who abided and the enemy at whom one blindly struck (“The Axe of Eden”). Man’s culture thus begins in a liberating (but also imprisoning) act of violence, for “The edge that kills creates” (ibid.). When the political world emerges, man transfers some of his primordial fear/trust from the deity to the divinized ruler, a literally worshipped figure in antiquity but no less a monstre sacre in the shape of a Hitler or a Stalin. Thus the fully matured consciousness must “smash the hero statues” and “Spit in the tombs of glory” (“The Hero Statues”).
Of course, as Burnshaw reminds us (and himself), we have literally neither past nor future, but only the anxious present that looks ahead and behind. It is impossible to recover the hypothesized world of early, Edenic consciousness (“Their Singing River”); nor can one foretell — let alone dictate — where the human project itself will eventuate. This is the burden of argument in In The Terrified Radiance, where the aging poet, watching the friends who fall about him (“Dialogue of the Stone Other”), wonders whether man will survive, let alone reconcile the contradictions of his “strangelove mind and suicide hand” (“Chanson Innocente”). Having barely discovered the world, as this latter poem suggests, we despoil “The hostage acres of soil we flay / And beg for our bread and warmth.” If this indeed be our self-elected destiny — Burnshaw’s “terrified radiance” also bears witness to the nuclear sublime — then, in the poet’s grim salutation, “hail / Catastrophe!” (ibid.). It may indeed be necessary to look beyond the human to find some residual sanity, a point made in an earlier poem, “End of the Flower-World”:
Fear no longer for the lone gray birds
That fall beneath the world’s last autumn sky,
Mourn no longer the death of grass and tree.
These will be as they have ever been:
Substance of springtime; and when the flower-world ends,
They will go back to earth, and wait, and be still.
The poet’s job, of course, is not to comfort, console, or counsel, but only to follow his own best perception, wherever it may lead. The prose writer may, in contrast, propound and advocate. With his retirement from Holt, Burnshaw set about in earnest to complete his long-meditated critical-anthropological study of the origins of human creativity, The Seamless Web. The capacity for creativity, he felt, was the distinctively human attribute; at the same time, it was man’s essential mode of evolutionary adaptation, the tool with which he shaped his world. In its highest as well as its most generalized form, this was poetry, the mind’s response to its environmental contingency (including the fact of consciousness itself). Poetry was thus not an ornament of civilization but the most critical and practically important of human functions. It connected the most primary biophysical functions to the highest mental ones. The maintenance of this connection was one of the most important tasks of poetry itself, for the unmoored imagination was, inevitably, denatured, self-deluded, and ultimately self-destructive. The organism itself is a “performance” in the world, a center of highly attuned perception and response, of which mental processes are only a part; in Donne’s formulation (a paradigmatic quotation in Burnshaw), “The body makes the minde.” Poetry, as poets themselves have noted from time immemorial, was both the most highly concentrated and voluntaristic of acts, and the most involuntary. (Burnshaw himself always insisted that his own verse came unbidden, on impulse, and could only then be shaped into artistic form.)
The “seamless web” that Burnshaw refers to is that of creation before the advent of human consciousness, a unity that can be restored, for man, only in the unifying act of poetry. Such moments are temporary and provisional, because they represent only the perspective of a single individual consciousness as it is able to communicate its healing moment to others, and take further life in this dialogic engagement. The healing action is an achieved knowledge that others may share, and this knowledge, because of its capacity for moral effect, stands above the merely instrumental knowledge that scientific or other discursive knowing affords. The best and most pertinent of such poetry, Burnshaw suggests, will be what he calls elsewhere a “creature poetry” that strives to express and actualize our relationships to the body of the world and our own bodies within that world. Once again, the essential text in Burnshaw’s own canon is “Bread,” with its rhapsodic yet eminently clearheaded celebration of the whole cycle of life.
Burnshaw extended the argument of The Seamless Web in an important lecture, “A Future for Poetry: Planetary Maturity,” first delivered to university audiences and later published in the London-based periodical Agenda. Echoing Robinson Jeffers, he suggested that anthropocentrism was a form of “infantilism” that the human race, with its newfound capacity for nuclear annihilation, could no longer afford. A different kind of consciousness was essential if the race was not to self-destruct, one that would represent a whole new phase of evolutionary consciousness. If creature poetry alone could not achieve this, it was nonetheless an indispensable modality of it. It was not, however, a means of transcending the human condition, but of accepting it. As Burnshaw concludes, with an uncharacteristic optimism perhaps adapted to his student auditors:
Planetary maturity, the inevitable next stage in human evolution, is in no respect a more soothing state that reconciles kindness and cruelty. But maturity never is.
Burnshaw’s decisive break with the intellectual Marxism of the 1930s came with Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges in 1952, a campaign halted only by the dictator’s death in March 1953. Burnshaw was shocked that any pogrom, let alone one in a supposedly socialist state, could be launched in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. At the same time, he had watched the difficult birth of the state of Israel. It was only when he visited Israel in the 1970s, however, that he began a new reckoning with his own heritage. The first fruit of this was a booklength poem, Mirages: Travel Notes in the Promised Land (1977), which Burnshaw described as “a public poem.” Modern Israel he found to be a land of paradox, indelibly stamped by the centuries of the Diaspora and the nomadic wandering that had preceded its first foundation, yet still mysteriously unified: “wherever I turn I see a different nation / Yet they may all have been one face.” By inverting the expected trope (many faces, one nation), Burnshaw sharpens the puzzle of Jewish identity, perhaps more critical an issue for the secular Jew than anyone else, and also the radical novelty of Israel itself, not an ancient state reborn but a new kind of community whose destiny could not be predicted: “Nothing with roots can stay. / All that you do must rise.”
The question of Jewish identity in its long historical continuum led Burnshaw to return to the form of the novel after thirty years in The Refusers: An Epic of the Jews (Horizon Press, 1981). Somewhat in the manner of Hermann Broch and Arthur Koestler, Burnshaw reached back to emblematic figures to meditate on the past and its relation to the present. The three whose independent tales he chose to relate were Moses, a figure lost not only to the mists of time but the chariots of Hollywood; Uriel da Costa, an obscure seventeenth century heretic and precursor of Spinoza; and, in a particularly daring (but also characteristic) maneuver, his own father, Ludwig.
In dealing with Moses, Burnshaw took up the issue Freud had raised in his quasi-novel Moses and Monotheism about the human creation of “God.” Burnshaw’s interest was in the conflation of the personal and partly megalomaniacal need of a leader with that of his tribe to produce an awesome, appalling, and deeply consequential conception. It is a study both of prophetic divination and political action, out of which Israel itself was forged for all its good and ill — a legacy that stamped what would become the most powerful civilization ever created, and whose uncanny reincarnation in modern times, the result of an unexampled suffering such as no people had ever endured, had projected its fearful conflicts anew on the modern world:
Nor yet can a generation
Die without shouting once into the air to purge its heart
Of the blind obsessive tale. as though for always unsure
Of the wrong of worshipping the blood’s terror of sacrifice.
The reference here is to the sacrifice of Isaac, projected back onto the biblical forebear Abraham in the Hebrew Testament but clearly the result of the Mosaic vision as interpreted by Burnshaw. Pagan sacrifice could be satisfied by the figure of the scapegoat, but monotheism, in establishing its uniquely personal relation between worshipper and deity, required an appeasement far more terrible and intimate. The struggle to escape this bind — Abraham does not sacrifice Isaac — created, as Burnshaw suggests, a new moral bond, but also left its indelible scar. As the above quoted lines imply, no Jew can be fully persuaded that the sacrifice of Isaac was not in fact required, and that the tribe’s punishment was not the consequence of the failure to carry it out.
Uriel da Costa is the pivotal figure in The Refusers, because his efforts to live within what he conceives to be the Mosaic code bring him into conflict with rabbinical orthodoxy and precipitates his crisis of unbelief. That skepticism — brought to fruition in Spinoza — presented itself in turn as the alternative to the credal conflicts that had consumed sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, and foreshadowed the rationalism of the Enlightenment. As the Jews had created the idea of a personal deity, so, it seemed, they were fated to pioneer a post-theistic world. This too was a service for which they were not to be thanked.
Someone like Marx or Freud might have been thought suitable for Burnshaw in rounding off his trilogy of critical Jewish figures, but, in a daring move, he chose to depict his own father, Ludwig. There was a deeply thematic as well as personal reason for this. Ludwig had devoted his life to nurturing Jewish orphans and, by extension, all children, thus symbolically banishing the specter of the Abrahamic sacrifice. At the same time, the mature Burnshaw would reflect on his own childhood sense of being merely a part of a large dormitory, an unelected son among too many others. In Mirages, too, he remembered a moment of corporal punishment that seemed to revive the ghost of Isaac:
Even my own father
One morning of my longago childhood helplessly
Watched his thought slip through the Hegelian chain
With which he wrestled the world, to relieve the curse
Thou shalt not raise thy hand …
Burnshaw called this autobiographical section of The Refusers “My Father, My Friend.” It proved the most accessible part of a sometimes gnomic text, and was subsequently published as an independent work by Oxford University Press. The title has a superficially sentimental ring, but, in fact, the conversion of a father into a “friend” is a leveling process too, not merely the maturation of a young adult into the peer of an older one but (specifically, in this case) a reversal, too, of former roles. The child who had never been quite special enough now befriended a father who was also but one among many. From that vantage, however, their relationship blossomed, and though never without tension it was evidently fulfilling for both.
Ludwig Bernstein died during the depths of World War II, in a despair over the Holocaust that his lifelong task to rescue children could only have made more terribly cruel. In this disaster, father and son bonded deeply, and, for Burnshaw, survivorship took on the added responsibility of bearing witness to the postwar rebirth of the Jewish people: indeed, in keeping with the practice of most of his earlier books, he appended the text of Mirages to The Refusers, as well as a historical retrospect describing the advent of Zionism. In later years, Burnshaw himself would sometimes despair over whether modern Israel could survive, and the moment of this present writing would not in all likelihood have given him grounds for greater hope. But it made him all the more determined to assert his identity as a Jew.
Burnshaw’s eightieth year, 1986, brought both the Oxford publication of My Father, My Friend and Robert Frost Himself. Their simultaneous appearance was not perhaps wholly a coincidence, since Burnshaw’s acquaintance with Frost had long preceded their final editorial association at Holt, and Frost had been not only an important poetic mentor but in some sense a surrogate father. These books brought the circle of Burnshaw’s career full circle. He continued to write verse into his eighties, and worked on the voluminous manuscript of a book of memoirs, first entitled (after Carlyle) “Truce with Necessity,” and, later, “Tyche”; never completed, it is now, with the Burnshaw papers, at the Harry Ransom Center for the Humanities in Austin, Texas. A special Burnshaw number of the British journal Agenda appeared as its Fall 1983/Winter 1984 issue, and in 1990 A Stanley Burnshaw Reader was published by the University of Georgia Press. Finally, Stanley Burnshaw: The Collected Poems and Selected Prose appeared from the University of Texas Press in 2002, carefully overseen by the then ninety-six-year old Burnshaw himself, who made his final winnowing of poems for it in their definitive texts. An annual Stanley Burnshaw Lecture was also endowed, with addresses by distinguished critics presented in alternating years at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and at the University of Texas, Austin.
Perhaps the most influential of all Burnshaw’s works has been The Poem Itself (1960) and its companion volume, The Hebrew Poem Itself (1965), a work which, edited by T. Carmi and Ezra Spicehandler and published by Holt with an important introduction by Burnshaw, virtually introduced modern Hebrew poetry to the English-speaking world. Burnshaw’s own interest in translation went back to his encounter with Spire, forty of whose poems he had rendered into English as part of his study of the Frenchman. His major midperiod collections — Early and Late Testament, Caged in an Animal’s Mind, and In the Terrified Radiance — all printed or reprinted a section of his translations, which he clearly regarded as an integral part of his own corpus. Yet the very enterprise of translation was deeply problematic for him. The poet of a foreign tongue and his English versifier could enter into a variety of relationships, none more satisfactory than in any other intimate encounter with the Other. The responding poet could assume the persona of the original one, in his own voice and for his own purposes, as Burnshaw had done in a sequence on Mallarme, “The Hero of Silence.” He could take the other’s poem as the basis of a derived poem in English, more or less faithful to the sense of the original although in no respect a reproduction of it. Such a poem had to be judged on its own merits, which might be quite genuine, but could not part the veil that concealed the original. To print the original and the “secondhand” poem side by side was helpful, indeed essential, but could not be sufficient. The former had to be unpacked, line by line and word by word, with its various shades of meaning and historical connotation made fully explicit. Only then and thus could the original be approached.
Burnshaw’s argument struck a profound chord in an era when “free” translation was much in vogue. It made the art of translation not only a poetic but a scholarly enterprise, and placed on the reader the difficult but ultimately rewarding burden of entering a foreign text in all its complexity, and paying it the same respect given work in one’s native tongue. Instead of a reduction, it offered a panoptic, interpretive approximation — the most that could be hoped for without genuine literacy in another language.
In many respects, Burnshaw’s insistence on the close reading of foreign language verse was of a piece with his overall critical approach, and his valorization of literature as the deepest and most unifying knowledge possible to a culture. Although his critical writing is a model of clarity and perspicacity, his verse and fiction can be demanding; as Norman Fruman says of the “Moses” section of The Refusers, it requires a high degree of concentration, and is prose is “often harsh, glaring, elliptical, [and] ruthlessly sparing of conjunctions.” This is not meant as, and should not be taken for, negative criticism. Difficult thought demands its own expression. If we grant that to Mallarme, we can make some allowances for Burnshaw. And yet, he is capable of great lyric poise as well, and surely “Bread” must be considered one of the most movingly direct expressions in the English verse of the twentieth century (although, for all that, a far from simple poem).
After retirement, Burnshaw continued to live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, spending summers on Martha’s Vineyard and winters on Key Biscayne in Miami. His first two marriages, to Irma Robin and Madeline Goodfriend, were relatively short-lived (Madeline was the mother of both his daughters), but a third union, to Lydia (Leda) Powsner, was ended only by her death in 1987. He reconciled himself to widowerhood, but in 1996 he met Susan Copen-Oken, a photographer more than thirty years his junior, with whom he formed a deeply loving relationship; they were married in 2003, and his final years were happy ones. He died at his home in Martha’s Vineyard on September 16, 2005.
Few if any modern men of letters had a wider circle of acquaintance and friendship than Stanley Burnshaw, from Alfred Kreymborg to Alfred Kazin, and, in his close and long-continuing association with Spire, he bridged parts of three centuries in his own long life. He devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to selflessly nurturing and advocating the work of others in whom he found value, and he was a superb editor; indeed, much of his legacy lives on silently in books to which he never signed his name. His voluminous correspondence is in itself almost a pocket history of twentieth century American letters, but his circle extended abroad as well to figures as diverse as the Australian novelist Christina Stead and Bet-Zion Netanyahu, the scholar of Iberian Jewish history and father of the Israeli prime minister. What one finds in it, though, is not merely a wealth of observation and circumstance, but the personal care and concern he always evinced for others. His father’s example was most evident in that. His legacy in no inconsiderable part rests there.
That Burnshaw regarded himself principally as a poet is clear in his valedictory statement, The Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Poetry came first, however many occupations he had and however many periods of silence he endured. He understood it as the epitome of life, and the furthest probe of knowledge. There were things that needed to be said in prose, but the echo of the poetry was always in them.
A career of Burnshaw’s scope is difficult to imagine these days. His chief rival is Edmund Wilson, who for all his many virtues had not an ounce of poetry in his body. One will look in vain, certainly, for the standards of clarity and rigor he maintained as an editor and publisher. One will look equally in vain for the commitment to social justice that survived every disillusion.
Burnshaw knew that humanity was a troubled condition as such. As his destructive century unfolded, he feared increasingly for its future as a species at war with its habitat. His call for “planetary maturity” is more relevant than ever, but he understood that bland stewardship and rational adjustment would not be enough. If humanity were to be saved, it would not be by its technocrats but its poets.
And he practiced what he preached.
Recently a new author page was created at PennSound for poet, editor, critic, translator, and environmentalist Stanley Burnshaw. The recordings were made available through an arrangement with the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library, at Yale University - with special support from Nancy Kuhl. We are also greateful for permission to make these recordings available given by Robert Zaller as Executor of the Estate of Stanley Burnshaw.
Here are links to the PennSound/Beinecke recordings:
1. A lecture on Robert Frost presented for the Academy of American Poets, October 9, 1990:
complete recording (6:08): MP3
2. Stanley Burnshaw reading his poems, May 16, 1963
from the Lee Anderson Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Library, Yale University:
Anonymous Alba (2:40): MP3
The Muse (trans. of Anna Akhmatova) (1:02): MP3
The Good Angel (trans. of Rafael Alberti) (1:20): MP3
L'amoureuse (trans. of Paul Eluard) (1:00): MP3
Denk nicht zu viel (trans. of Stefan George) (1:12): MP3
Passé (trans. of Paul Eluard) (1:18): MP3
Nativity (trans. of André Spire) (1:14): MP3
Nudities (trans. of André Spire) (2:16): MP3
introduction and epigraph for "Thoughts about a Garden" series (0:55): MP3
Summer (1:26): MP3
Ancient of Nights (1:11): MP3
Historical Song of Then and Now (1:41): MP3
Thoughts about a Garden (1:57): MP3
Ravel and Bind (0:37): MP3
Caged in an Animal's Mind (1:23): MP3
Symbol Curse (1:19): MP3
The Valley Between (2:04): MP3
Midnight Wind to the Tossed (1:39): MP3
Petitioner Dogs (1:13): MP3
A Recurring Vision (2:45): MP3
Father-Stones (0:46): MP3
The Axe of Eden (15:14): MP3
A River (2:01): MP3
Modes of Belief (1:15): MP3
Letter from One Who Could Not Cross the Frontier (1:08): MP3
Surface (0:36): MP3
Three in Throes (0:21): MP3
Boy over a Stream (1:21): MP3
Street for Abishag (0:34): MP3
Song of Nothings: In the Mountain's Shadow at Delphi (1:14): MP3
What Can I See (0:42): MP3
Presences (0:16): MP3
House in St. Petersburg (4:59): MP3
Looking for Papa (2:24): MP3
Blood (0:39): MP3
Bread (2:09): MP3
Outcast of the Waters (1:21): MP3
Complete reading (1:10:34): MP3
Looking forward to 1960
As the symposium has suggested, there are a number of 1960s: a year in which work from the 1950s appeared in print (the physicality of print technologies involving a time lag); a year in which the social and political landscape silenced some, even as what was published has an energy still present in 2011; the year of the New American Poetry, 1945–1960 (the subtitle, worth underlining), by now surprisingly both capacious and ordinary, closed and defying aesthetic closure. A longer view can cast even more light on the multiple facets of 1960.
In 1939 Philip Rahv proposed a distinction between “Paleface and Redskin”; his word choice makes us wince; his sense of who counted as a “redskin” — those, including Whitman, said to “control the main highway of literature” — sounds odd to our ears, as does his categorization of Eliot and Dickinson as more “paleface,” tending “toward a refined estrangement from reality.”  Rahv’s essay is primarily about novelists, but his sketch of an opposition between poetic schools seems simply to ignore innovative writers of the previous decade. A little over ten years after Rahv’s piece appeared, Paul Goodman’s essay on “Advance-Guard Writing, 1900–1950” — like Rahv’s piece published in The Kenyon Review, and focused mostly on fiction — noted that during the Depression and between the World Wars I and II, most people thought an advance-guard had simply vanished from the scene in the United States; innovative poetry did continue to be written, but no felt community persisted.  Goodman suggests as well that there was in 1950 a sense of a larger cultural mainstream against which innovative work could and should position itself. Between Rahv’s 1939 and Goodman’s 1950, there’s agreement that a poetic mainstream exists, but not about what counts as such or about what is going on outside of that mainstream.
Turning to testimony from other poetry readers in the ’50s, one can see that local reading or writing groups devoted to poetry were often still fighting rear-guard skirmishes against modernist practices. Wings: A Quarterly of Verse — a small, staplebound but relatively well-produced regional magazine from Mill Valley, California edited by Stanton Coblentz (who had studied with Witter Bynner at Stanford) — has a continuing feature: facing pages, one entitled “This IS Poetry”; the other “This is NOT Poetry.” In 1956, a sonnet by Christina Rossetti and an epigrammatic quatrain by Lady Margaret Sackville counted as poetry. A free verse piece by Kenneth Ford and Williams’ eight-line “Sonnet in Search of an Author” (reprinted from The Nation) were dismissed as “not poetry.”  In short, there was a segmentation of reading communities and reading practices: what looked publishable to The Nation, looked dismayingly innovative from Mill Valley. Meanwhile, Richard Wilbur — whose 1957 Pulitzer Prize suggests at least one form of mainstream recognition — was writing “Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act” in 1950, which hardly placed him in a cultural or political mainstream. By 1956, Ashbery’s Some Trees was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Series by W. H. Auden. It seems that in ’50s America, various poets and their various readers defined what was innovative and what mainstream in so many ways that it is difficult to find a common core.
True, many clearly felt there was a mainstream. Felix Stefanile, editor of Sparrow, looked back with some nostalgia at the ’50s saying there “was a real and powerful establishment to fight. Because it deprived us, it gave us a vision of the Enemy,” while Creeley writes of Black Mountain: “we felt, all of us, a great distance from the more conventional magazines of that time. Either they were dominated by the New Critics, with whom we could have no relation, or else were so general in character that no active center of coherence was possible.”  This sense of an establishment and use of the first-person plural may have been more a function of the political culture of consensus in the fifties than a single-minded resistance to a united aesthetic front. Even Creeley’s comment notes that most poetry journals — I would add poetry readers — were not defining a single aesthetic. If anything, it was the smaller magazines that defined more unified communities, but there were multiple smaller communities. Certainly Lowell’s “tranquilized fifties” (as he said in 1959 and as would still have felt true in 1960) were poetically as well as politically and socially less homogenized than we might think. Maybe the myth of the fifties is what makes the multiple incarnations of 1960 surprising.
 Philip Rahv, “Paleface and Redskin,” Kenyon Review 1, no. 3 (1939), 251–256.
 Paul Goodman, “Advance-Guard Writing, 1900–1950,” Kenyon Review 8, no. 3 (1951), 357–380.
 Wings: A Quarterly of Verse, ed. Stanton A. Coblentz (1956), 20–21.
 Felix Stefanile, “The Little Magazine Today,” The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History, ed. Elliott Anderson and Mary Kinzie (Yonkers: Pushcart Press, 1978), 649; Robert Creeley, “On the Black Mountain Review,” The Little Magazine in America, 253.