From content to context
Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too.
— Frank O’Hara, “Personism: A Manifesto”(1959)
Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.
— Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect” (1918)
Scene: the State Dining Room of the White House on the afternoon of May 11, 2011. Occasion: a poetry workshop held under the auspices of Michelle Obama for high school student-poets. The workshop has been organized by the First Lady’s close friend, the Yale poet-professor Elizabeth Alexander, who wrote the inaugural poem for Obama in 2008. The four participating poets are the former laureates Rita Dove and Billy Collins, along with — implausibly enough — the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith and Fluxus performance artist Alison Knowles. Seven teenage students have been chosen to read their work, and in the evening there is to be a poetry reading by Dove, Collins, Goldsmith, Knowles, and a few others, with President and Mrs. Obama in attendance.
After Alexander makes a brief introduction about the powers of poetry, Melody Barnes, the president’s domestic policy adviser, discusses the importance of the arts — poetry, dance, country music, Motown hits — for young people, stressing the fact that those schools that incorporate the arts into their regular curriculum (English, math, science) get a better yield of “successful” students. She then introduces the first poet, Tiesha Hines, a senior at Ballou High School in Washington, DC. Tiesha, we learn, “has been writing poetry since she was seven and is now president of her poetry club …. After she graduates, she is going to get to use those skills in other ways, as she studies criminal justice at Fortis College and Trinity University.”
Note the assumption here that poetic composition is a skill to be applied elsewhere. Tiesha’s “poetic” abilities will transfer to her study of a subject that matters in the real world — criminal justice. Poetry, by contrast, does not matter in the real world and is not something that grown-ups do, except for a few “professionals” like the four invited poets. Tiesha accepts this definition herself: she tells the audience that she was chosen because she loves to write poetry but also for her “positive attitude and compassion for other poets.” And, having read a short love poem (“Ten Things I Want to Throw at You”), Tiesha turns the podium over to the First Lady, who welcomes “this extraordinary group of poets” to the White House. Michelle Obama begins by explaining her own interest in poetry:
I was a budding writer. Elizabeth [Alexander] doesn’t know this …. [B]ut when I was young, I was a passionate creative writer and sort of a poet. That’s how I would release myself. Whenever I was struggling in school, or didn’t want to go outside and deal with the nonsense of the neighborhood, I would write and write and write and write.
So this workshop and celebrating you all is important to me … because I think it was my writing that sort of prepared me for so much of what I’ve had to do in my life as an adult.
There it is again: the theme of poetry as preparation for a useful life, a serious life. Poetry as “release,” as escape from the daily struggle and “nonsense of the neighborhood.” “And when you write poetry,” the First Lady continues, “you’re not just expressing yourself. You’re also connecting to people …. Think about how you feel when you read a poem that really speaks to you; one that perfectly expresses what you’re thinking and feeling. When you read that, you feel understood, right? I know I do. You feel less alone. I know I do. You realize despite all our differences, there are so many human experiences and emotions that we share.”
And so on. The uplift theme continues for a few more minutes, honoring poetry as expression, connection, communication — and escape from the drudgery of daily life. Finding your authentic voice, tapping into your unique and truest feelings: this is the poet’s task. And Michelle Obama concludes by announcing, “I’m going to sit for the first session and hear a little bit, but we’ll probably get up while you keep going.” The reference is to her need to leave before long, together with her special guest, Mrs. Margarita Zavala, the First Lady of Mexico. These First Ladies have important things to do!
Poetry, we surmise from these introductory remarks, is essentially a teenager’s pastime. Writing and reading it can help our young people stay off the streets and express their better selves. But such self-expression, friends, has its limits: when we grow up, we must turn from poetry to things that matter — real things! Shades of the prison house, as Wordsworth put it in the great Immortality Ode, begin to close upon us. In the meantime, though, there is “finding your voice.” After some short statements by the “professionals,” of which more below, we are treated to readings of seven student poems. The first poem to be read is called “Belly Song”; it is “dedicated to my mother who has been diagnosed with kidney failure”:
Eight months you carried me
Morning sickness wasn’t ready,
Eight months you carried
But I, I will
Carry you as long as needed, sit
In my belly
For I shall hold you, sit
In my belly
To the song it sings for my heart
My belly song
Will cure your sickness
From kidneys that decided they had enough
Filtering blood so that your heart will pump my heart
Of daughter-mommy day
Of pillow fights and movie nights …
The second reader picks up on the memory theme with “Those Were the Days”:
I remember those good old days
The days when I ran with a Barbie in my right hand
And a toy car in my left,
The days when I ate the chicken
And put the veggies in a napkin
The days of naptime and milk with cookies
Yea, I remember those days
With the screens and the elves
The whips and the brooms
The ultimatums and the dusters
Those were the days.
I remember those days
With the beer bottles and the hard liquor
With the tears and the blood
Those good old days
With the police and the jail visits
The CIA and immigration
And lonely nights with no one to tuck me in
Yeah, those were the days
I did my homework with no help
I cooked my own food
I did the cleaning
I got fatter and fatter
I remember those days,
Which I worked out alone
Which I exceeded without you,
Which I ate my burnt food
Yeah, I remember.
What does the word “poem” mean to these aspiring poets? What conventions govern their poetic discourse? I find three constants: (1) poetry is assumed to be self-expression — the expression of one’s most private and often painful feelings; (2) poetry is text that is lineated (and when delivered orally, punctuated by pauses at line-ends); and (3) poetry exploits phrasal repetition, as in “eight months I carried” and “sit / in my belly” in the first poem and “Those were the days” and the “I did” and “which” clauses in the second. There is, evidently, no thought of using meter, of counting stresses or syllables. If it is divided into lines, these texts say, it’s poetry; if it’s not, it’s just prose. And repetition — or more properly refrain — underscores the personal feeling of a ubiquitous “I.”
The voice that comes through these recountings of “unique” experience turns out to be surprisingly uniform, despite differences in ethnicity and gender (“Belly Song” is by a young African American woman; “Memory” by a Hispanic male). Indeed the “Memories / Of pillow fights and movie nights” could be exchanged with the “Days of naptime and milk and cookies” in “Those Were the Days,” without much difference in tone or meaning. In both cases, the “I” is the victim of unanticipated external forces: the mother’s kidney disease in the first; CIA immigration policies in the second. In both cases, fear and pain are associated with the loss of a loved parent. The “I” must be strong and learn to cope.
The resulting rhetoric is often praised for its authenticity, but how authentic is it? The belly metaphor, for example, which compares the mother’s protection of her child in the womb to the daughter’s desire to, so to speak, swallow her mother’s body so that she can shield her inside her belly, is strained: a gradual gestation is compared to the momentary urge to change a desperate situation. And the image of the mother’s diseased body inside her daughter is even more problematic. In a similar vein, the second poem’s comparisons of “ultimatums” to “dusters,” “whips” to “brooms,” is hardly a simulation of natural speech. More important, here words are sometimes used incorrectly, as in “I exceeded without you,” evidently for “I succeeded without you,” the lines further marred by the ungrammatical use of “which” where “in which” is called for. Language, in these instances, is regarded as a kind of afterthought or additive: first come the feelings to be embodied in words and only then does word choice kick in, designed to make the resulting discourse appear “poetic.”
No wonder — and it is not the students but their teachers who are to blame — that the readership of poetry has so drastically declined. How are students, whose knowledge of poetry is presumably confined to a high school anthology of near contemporaries, supposed to find their own poetic voice? Even the author of “Belly Song,” interestingly enough, turns to citation, in this case to the classic wedding vows in the Book of Common Prayer:
Our love is deeper
This daughter mommy love vowing
To be there in sickness and in health,
For richer or for poorer
’Til death do us part.
The conceptual reaction
When, as the famous anecdote has it, the painter Degas told the poet Mallarmé that he had good ideas for poems but couldn’t find the right words, the latter responded, “It is not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes poems. It is with words.” This is neither sophistry nor an unusual doctrine of poetry; it is the recognition that, as Wittgenstein put it, “The limits of language mean the limits of my world,” or “Language is not contiguous to anything else.” Those mysterious feelings and ideas the young poets are told to “express” are not there till they are materialized. As Robert Smithson puts it in a quip cited by Craig Dworkin in “The Fate of Echo,” his preface to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (edited with Kenneth Goldsmith): “my sense of language is that it is matter and not ideas — i.e., ‘printed matter.’” And the paradox that both editors pinpoint in their respective prefaces to the anthology is that, in the digital age, the best words for a given occasion may well not be one’s own at all.
Or so Goldsmith remarks in his own presentation at the White House workshop, based on his now well-known 2007 manifesto “Uncreative Writing.” Against the usual admonition to “Look in thy heart and write” (Rita Dove has just told the group that “Only you can tell your story. So if you remain true to your own experience, your voice will find you!”), he begins by noting, tongue in cheek, that his own students are penalized for any shred of originality or creativity they might show. As he puts it in the manifesto, “Instead they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering and stealing. Not surprisingly they thrive. Suddenly, what they’ve surreptitiously become expert at is brought out in the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness.” Copying, cutting and pasting, downloading, recycling: these activities, Goldsmith argues, will actually teach students more about literature than the seeming “originality” of self-expression. Whereas a fellow professor assigned students to write “in the style of Jack Kerouac,” Goldsmith would have them simply copy out a few pages of On the Road — a process that, he insists, will teach them more about Kerouac’s style than can the clever imitation. The analogy is to the apprentice painter of the nineteenth century who, before the days of adequate reproduction, diligently copied a Rembrandt or Vermeer for sale to fine arts patrons, thus becoming curiously familiar with the style in question.
But can such copying actually produce works of art? The White House audience, not surprisingly, looks a bit skeptical. In his new book Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, Goldsmith argues that, in the wake of the digital revolution, writers now face a situation similar to that of painters in the nineteenth century: “As photography forced artists to alter their approach to their medium, the [newly invented broadband] Internet presents challenges and opportunities for writers to reconceive ideas about creativity, authorship and their relationship to language. Confronted with an unprecedented amount of available text and language, writers need to move beyond the creation of new texts to manage, parse, appropriate, and reconstruct those that already exist.” And again, in his preface to Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Goldsmith argues, “What we’re dealing with here is a basic change in the operative system of how we write at the root level.” Choice and framing take precedence over individual verbal invention. Context replaces content as textual determinant.
If this position sounds extreme — and it has so sounded to many poets and their readers — we might stop to consider that in the visual arts, conceptualism has been the dominant mode since the late 1960s, when Joseph Kosuth published his manifesto “Art after Philosophy” and Sol LeWitt his now classic “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” In the latter, we read:
In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art … is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman …. What the work of art looks like isn’t too important …. No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the artist is concerned.
The premise behind this and related manifestos was that, for at least the moment, “perceptual” art — what Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades anticipated conceptual art by half a century, called “the retinal shudder” — had lost its challenge: realistic, or even impressionistic and expressionistic, representation of the external world had become too easy, too familiar. Portraiture, for example, had become the domain of photography, as had representations of landscape. As for formalist abstraction, however “wonderful” the severe negation of the all-black paintings of Ad Reinhardt, Joseph Kosuth argued, they represented a point of no return: “After Reinhardt, the tradition of painting seemed to be in the process of completion, while the tradition of art, now unfettered, had to be re-defined.”
When Goldsmith published his own “Sentences on Conceptual Writing” (2005), a document which was, in fact, a verbatim copy of Sol LeWitt’s manifesto, merely substituting the phrase “uncreative writing” for “conceptual art” and “text” for “art” wherever these terms occurred, the poetry community, not recognizing the source, mostly expressed outrage at Goldsmith’s position, thus proving his point that poetic theory and practice were distinctly behind those of the visual arts (indeed, those of music as well), where LeWitt’s principles had long been accepted. It is the theme Dworkin, himself one of the most accomplished young conceptual poets, unpacks in “The Fate of Echo.” Reading conceptual poetry against the background of the conceptual art of the 1960s, Dworkin traces a line from the conceptualist rejection of visual image in favor of the dominant “idea” to the premise that, in the case of writing, opaque language is a starting point and hence something to be appropriated and thus called into question. Like Goldsmith, he is convinced that the digital revolution has been seminal:
[P]art of the difference between 1980 and 2000 derives from the cultural changes brought about by an increasingly digitized culture. During those decades, appropriation-based practices in other arts spread from isolated experiments to become a hallmark of hip-hop music, global DJ culture, and a ubiquitous tactic for mainstream and corporate media. Concurrently, sampling, mash-up, and the montage of found footage went from novel methods of production to widespread activities of consumption …. Conceptual poetry, accordingly, often operates as an interface — returning the answer to a particular query; assembling, rearranging and displaying information; or sorting and selecting from files of accumulated language pursuant to a certain algorithm — rather than producing new material from scratch. Even if it does not involve electronics or computers, conceptual poetry is thus very much a part of its technological and cultural moment.
Interestingly, this shift to a poetry “more graphic than semantic, more a physically material event than a disembodied or transparent medium for referential communication” (xliii), haunts the May 11 poetry workshop and reading at the White House, even though no one but Goldsmith, and indirectly Alison Knowles, demonstrating one of her Bean Bag sound pieces to the audience, talks about the problem. The inclusion of singer-songwriters Aimee Mann and Jill Scott, rap artist Common, and comedian-playwright-composer Steve Martin, in what was billed a “poetry event” at the White House, suggests that the organizers felt that poetry as such wouldn’t quite cut it.
Thus, although all the student performers in the afternoon workshop were writing traditional lyric under the sign of, say, Rita Dove, the evening reading itself veered increasingly toward musical performance. The relationship between poetry and performance became complicated: the audience was reassured about “imaginative writing” by being treated to a kind of “poetry-plus,” with plenty of song to interrupt what might otherwise have been the tedium of the merely verbal.
Still, as the inclusion (fortuitous or not) of Goldsmith and Knowles at the White House event suggests, there are other possibilities for poetry. As Dworkin puts it:
The great break with even the most artificial, ironic, or asemantic work of other avant-gardes is the realization that one does not need to generate new material to be a poet: the intelligent organization or reframing of already extant text is enough. Through the repurposing or détournement of language that is not their own (whatever that might mean), the writers here allow arbitrary rules to determine the chance and unpredictable disposition of that language; they let artificial systems trump organic forms; and they replace making with choosing, fabrication with arrangement, and production with transcription.
Such détournement, Dworkin suggests, can go a long way in countering the public perception of the poetic as an additive of sorts, a special language made of tropes and figures of speech devised by the “sensitive” poet who knows how to tap into his or her memory pool. One of the two poems read by laureate Billy Collins at the White House was called “Forgetfulness” and begins:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
When the poet read these lines at the White House, the audience politely chuckled. Indeed, the first time one hears this gently self-deprecating account of memory loss it seems funny and familiar. Oh yes, we’ve all been there, at least those of us of a certain age! But “Forgetfulness” cannot bear much inspection. For not only is the metaphor forced — where is the fishing village today that has no phones? — but, more important, an aging speaker suffering from memory loss could hardly give us such a clever description of the process, much less come up with the pun on “harbor” or the witty reference to the southern hemisphere of the brain. This is poetry as cocktail party banter. “Don’t imagine,” Pound warned us, “that a thing will ‘go’ in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose.”
The renewal of lyric
What, then, will “go” in verse? When Pound used the term he was referring neither to metrical nor to free verse (“vers libre has become as prolix and as verbose as any of the flaccid varieties that preceded it”) but to the musical phrase: “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome” (3). And again: “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave.” The musical phrase is, of course, associated with lyric: for the ancient Greeks, the term lyric referred to verse that was accompanied by a lyre or other stringed instrument (for example, the barbitos), and musical speech — speech to be sounded — characterized a large body of poetry from the Hebrew and the Chinese to the Arabic lyric of the Middle Ages and Troubadour verse of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
When lyric is construed, as it has been since the Romantics, as the art of self-expression, of the private language of a subject overheard while engaged in meditation or intimate conversation with another, conceptualism would seem to be, by definition, its enemy, relying, as it so often does, on words not one’s own or submitting ordinary words to elaborate rules. But if we relate lyric to the musical phrase, the dichotomy disappears: what Dworkin describes as “sorting and selecting from files of accumulated language” is perfectly consonant with the notion of a poem as a distinctively sounded structure, the proviso being that in the digital age the look of the text becomes equally important, so that all poetry is, in a sense, visual as well as sound poetry. In Joyce’s idiom, taken over by the Concrete poets, who anticipated some central strains of conceptualism, poetry is verbivocovisual.
Consider Goldsmith’s No. 111 2.7.92–10.20.96, a text generated, as the title tells us, between the dates February 7, 1992, and October 20, 1996, by recording all the phrases the author happened to come across in his daily reading that ended in the sound linguists designate as schwa — the er or uh sound which is one of the most common in English, as in father, finger, future, happier, but also in such one-syllable words as car or are. These units are then organized alphabetically by syllable count, beginning with one-syllable entries for chapter 1 (“A, a, aar, aer, agh, ah, air …) and culminating in the 7,228-syllable reproduction of an entire short story: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner.”
The five-page excerpt from this book selected for the Anthology of Conceptual Writing is chapter 8, with its eight-syllable phrases running from a to z and within a, from ab (“A beer does not come with in-laws, a Bohemian reformer” to “Australian buttchug moon river” (258–59). Here is a sample passage, beginning with de:
deliver Oscar caliber, Delta is ready when you are, der Wallet-emptyung Meter, Dhamacakkappavattana, Diarmuid and Grania, did damage on the 3s and 4s. Did I ever? Did I ever!, Did you ever!, Did I ever?, Did you ever!, Did you ever! Did I ever!, Did you ever? Did I ever?, Did you ever? Did you ever!, Did you finish sewing my bear?, dig a ding dang depadepa, digital slaves of the future, dinkus simmers in late summer, discharges corroding humours, dive into an icy river, Do food makers get fan letters?, Do me a big favor will ya?, do not whine to the Postmaster, dock doesn’t quite reach the water, Does anyone sing anymore? Does it speak to you any more? don’t ask me I only work here, don’t believe everything you hear, don’t even think of parking here. (260–61)
This absurdist catalogue, with its advertising slogans (“Delta is ready when you are”), slightly obscure literary titles (Yeats’s play Diarmuid and Grania), Indian chants, bop rhythms, questions, commands, bits of dialogue, homonyms, comic repartee, and slippery punctuation — a montage of voices that don’t go together and yet seem perfectly consonant with the way language actually confronts us today. At the same time, the elaborate structure of rhyme and anaphora, the nursery rhyme echoes and bits of chant (“Dive into an icy river”), the alliteration and assonance, and the return of the –er sound at every eighth syllable makes this a sequence curiously more “poetic” than, say, Billy Collins’s poem or the student poems I cited earlier. It gives us the sense that, however bizarre the discourse of our daily lives, it can be organized and given some kind of pattern that is meaningful. The words may not be Goldsmith’s, but their choice and framing certainly are.
The anthology contains extracts from many such “lyric” conceptual poems, from the “abecedaries” of the Vienna Group (571–75) and John Cage’s “Writing through The Cantos” (129–35) to Caroline Bergvall’s riff on Dante called “Via” (982–86) and Christian Bök’s extraordinary Eunoia (119–20), both of which I have discussed elsewhere. In the anthology, lyric is still in the minority — such recent texts as Vanessa Place’s Statement of Fact, her intricately structured presentation of police reports and court records pertaining to indigent sex offenders whose cases come before the appellate court where the author is a public defender, or Craig Dworkin’s own “Legion,” composed by “rearranging and recontexualizing the true-false questions of the 1942 Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory as if they were declarative confessional statements … part of a poetic monologue rather than a forensic instrument” (190) — these require the prose of their source texts, although Dworkin’s litany of I’s — “I wish I were not so shy,” “At times I feel like smashing things” — is, of course, a brilliant spoof on lyric self-revelation.
But in recent years, Dworkin, like many conceptual poets, has also turned back to lyric itself. Motes contains 150 minimalist poems, usually two per page (105 “Opuscula” and 45 “Ayres”), many of them epigrams, riddles, and definition poems in the vein of Pound’s “In the Station of the Metro” or, more immediately, Stein’s Tender Buttons. But whereas Stein describes, however elliptically and fancifully, the object designated by her title — “Milk,” “Sugar,” “Umbrella,” “Custard” — Dworkin’s concern is with the riddling of semantic overload: pun, paragram, homonym, foreign-language equivalent. “Every word,” he explains, “is multiply determined — by translation between languages, or sound, or typography, etc. — but my goal was to have all those rules as invisible and elided as possible.”
The title Motes is at once simple — we all know that motes are small particles or specks, especially of dust — but also resonant of the King James Bible, as in Matthew 7: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” Dworkin’s epigraph from Spenser’s Faerie Queene (book 2, stanza 32), “Well mote yee thee, as well can wish your thought,” complicates the picture, for in Spenser’s purposely archaicized English, the Redcrosse Knight’s “Well mote yee thee” means “Well may you thrive.” The little epigraph thus suggests not only that language is inherently slippery, but that canonical authors in earlier periods also engaged in language play: according to the OED, thee, the diminutive of the Anglo Saxon theon, to thrive, was already obsolete by Spenser’s time. Meanwhile “thee” — the second-person singular pronoun meaning “you” — is now, in its turn, obsolete in standard common English. To read Motes is thus to cast off familiar habits and let the words (mots in French and thus directly in the title) open up to reveal their mysteries.
The first of the Opuscula reads:
“Shiver” contains the French word for winter, “hiver,” and the “s” that precedes it suggests the reflexive pronoun “se.” To shiver is to winter oneself. It makes perfect sense. Or again:
too much marmalade now
starting to turn green
When one is seasick, one’s stomach turns to jelly. It’s an old cliché. But no one would normally use the word “marmalade” in this context: marmalade is much more specific than jam, originally referring only to citrus fruit, and it doesn’t shake as does jelly. No one would say, “My stomach turned to marmalade.” But look again: marmalade contains the French word malade: ergo, too much illness now. In this context, turning green refers to the appearance of the seasick, but also to the cooking process or even to the ocean. And in a related “mote”:
frottage of fish grotto signage as
announcing the decline of the west —
The reference is to the signpost in front of a restaurant on the Berkeley marina, behind whose “frottage,” or dim image of a fish grotto, sunset is taking place. In Berkeley, even the sunset is taken seriously, representing, with a grandiose flourish, the decline of the West (Oswald Spengler’s title). But in the meantime, the intricate phonemic play (internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration) of “frottage of fish grotto signage” conjures up the image of a rare fish ragout served in the “grotto” of the restaurant.
Some of the motes are riddling anagrams, like:
split little puppet pulpits tilted spilling dew
The short title generates seven words characterizing the tulips in a mock alexandrine, the “dew” spilling out from those “puppet pulpits,” rhyming with the first syllable of “tulips” to make the organic process of decay and rebirth as graphic as possible. Or again, “thunderclouds” are characterized as “really loud under there,” the word itself yielding paragrams that describe the situation quite accurately.
Part 2, “Ayres,” contains a number of bird songs. Here are two “Crow” poems:
a flock of chalk-
white aging birds
flew by, coughing
at a watching sky
two crows over there
there’s a crowd now’s growing
from those fielding old seeds
Here the first little “ayre” depends on acoustic imagery: not only is the ugly crow sound reinforced by “coughing,” but “chalk-white” suggests the homonym “caulking” for “cawking,” and thus we both hear and see these crows! What can the sky do but “watch,” the rhyme “by” / “sky” bringing this elliptical lyric full circle. The second poem uses visual punning: two crows can be stretched to make a crow-d that’s “growing,” as it is seen to be “fielding” (the baseball term, plus “belong to the field”) those old seeds.
Where, in all this verbal play, is the “authentic” voice of the poet on display at venues like the White House workshop? How does the self emerge from Dworkin’s elaborate sound games? Reading Motes, the purported “impersonality” one would expect from these riddles or epigrams is illusory: there is a particular persona who speaks, one who can’t look at or hear a word without wanting to explore its insides and study its living relationships. For Dworkin that quest to unlock the word seems to be a special pleasure:
Explanation of butter on the counter overnight
Leave it out all night, and butter (margarine) has melted, losing the margin of its rectangular eight-ounce bar or perhaps running over the margin of the counter. The explanation makes sense, and look at what lovely sound it generates, with its anapestic rhythm and alliterative “t” patterns:
Explanátion of bútter on the coúnter overníght.
Indeed, Dworkin’s is a Jamesian aesthetic: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” If he sees the name “Vincent Van Gogh,” he focuses on the middle word “Van,” a variant on the German “Von,” originally designating aristocratic birth. But in everyday parlance, a van is, of course, a vehicle, and so by metonymic transfer, we move from “van” to the poem’s first word, “diligence,” the French stagecoach of the nineteenth century that, no doubt, took Van Gogh to Paris.
The free-associative and yet rule-generated lyric of Motes is part of a new congerie of conceptual lyrics younger poets are producing. A great venue has been the Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn, most of whose books are individually designed little pamphlets with artful paper covers and innovative typography. Consider Uljana Wolf’s False Friends (Falsche Freunde). Wolf is a young poet from Berlin who lives in the US with her American husband, poet Christian Hawkey, whose own Ventrakl (another Ugly Duckling book) is an elaborate serial poem on the nature of translation. The author’s note at the back of False Friends explains:
These DICHTionary poems (Dichtung is German for poetry) are based on lists of so-called “false friends” in German and English — words that look and/or sound similar in both languages, but differ in meaning. At any given moment, each of these words might be used with German in mind, or English, or both. Other times these “friends” do not appear explicitly in their poems but instead remain standing behind them with suitcases full of etymology and misread linguistic maps.
The picture is further complicated by the fact that the “DICHTionary poems” have been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky, one of the best translators of German poetry, who worked closely with Wolf to find the right nuance and idiom. We thus have “German-English” turned into English-English, with German bits sometimes pasted in. Take for example, Wolf’s “bad / bald / bet-t / brief”:
am anfang bald, und bald am ende wieder: unsere haare, und dazwischen sind sie nicht zu fassen, nicht in sich und nicht in griff zu kriegen, weder im guten noch im bad. stattdessen morgens zu berg (take a bet?) und nachts out of bed (siehe ad). Am besten hälst du sie als igel der hat noch jeden hare besiegt. Liegt aber eine strähne im brief, gar eine lange, halte sie unverfänglich an die wange.
In Wolf’s wronglish, as she calls her bilingual idiolect, the German title words migrate into their unrelated English counterparts, shifting grammar along the way and blowing apart the poet’s mock-meditation. The effect is that of travelling to a foreign country and not quite hearing the other. How can “soon” (adverb) be “bald” (adjective)? “bad” (adjective) a “bath” (noun)? “bet” (verb) a “bed” (noun)? Or “brief” (adjective) a “letter” to be mailed (noun)? Never mind, Wolf’s little love poem, concluding with a rhyme on “lange” (long) and “wange” (cheek), urges the lover, who may find a strand of hair in the letter, to press it sweetly to his cheek.
In Susan Bernofsky’s translation — or more accurately her adaptation — the poem reads like this:
In the beginning bald, bald at the end once more: in between, this hair is hard to grasp, tricky to pin it up or down, for better or for bed. standing on end instead (fake a bet?) and at night out of hand (see the ad). perhaps best to crop it hedgehog close: he always gets his hare. But should you find a strand within a letter, long or brief, press it sweetly to your cheek.
Bernofsky’s all-English version retains the German element in hidden form: “within a letter, long or brief,” for example,” the “brief” reappears, and “hair” becomes “hare” in the hedgehog fable. Once the stage is set for such adaptation, the possibilities multiply: in the “Variations” section at the back of the book, the poet Eugene Ostashevsky gives “bad bald bet-t brief” a further spin:
In the beginning hareless and unhared again in the end: our hare — even a dachshund can do nothing against it, neither by itself nor by wearing its war claws, neither in good weather nor while it rains cats and dogs. In the morning it pitches a tent (in bad) and at night it gambols in the bathtub like an advertent bettwetter. It fell out to have been bested and halted by an eagle, who then had to bear a hat to bear ahead because it became a bald eagle . . . what a bad hare day! In brief, it lay around here on the strand like an unopened ladder and gargled, can you catch the hare by the cheek, it can’t ear.
Thus Uljana Wolf’s little love poem, with its slide into English usage, gives Ostashevsky the impetus to produce his own “bad hare day.” His version eliminates the “pure” German, settling for the mongrelism of “bettwetter,” or substituting cliché for foreign locution: here it “rains cats and dogs”; our hare wears “war claws,” “pitches its tent,” and becomes a “bald eagle.” The strand of hair becomes the beach, the unopened “brief” a ladder. As for the “hare” (for hair) to be absurdly caught by the cheek, “it can’t ear.”
Such writing is often dismissed as mere game playing. Isn’t poetry supposed to be a noble pursuit, a way of expressing yourself and communicating with others, as the White House speakers suggest? Of finding your authentic voice? For decades now, the cult of expressivity has dominated — the belief that self-revelation will automatically become poetry if it is sufficiently sincere and earnest. Hence the endless drive to bring poetry to the prisons, poetry to the hospitals and nursing homes, as if simple desire could bring one to write “poems” others would want to read.
But suppose we regard “poetry” as the language art, parallel to the composition of music, the making of visual objects, or dance? However original the art work may be, there is a discipline to be learned: a discipline that cannot encompass personal effusions like “Belly Song” or “Those Were the Days,” or, for that matter, the magazine verse that now dominates the poetry scene. Forced feeding, as Frank O’Hara said, leads to excessive thinness! And in the Internet age, where we are at liberty to download such a plethora of texts — to reproduce them, recycle them, change their appearance by altering font, typeface, spacing, size — context and framing become the key elements. The poet’s role has become, in the literal sense, that of a word processor, finding how best to absorb, recharge, and redistribute the language that is already there.
Let me conclude with one of the most remarkable lyric sequences of recent years: Cia Rinne’s notes for soloists. Born in Sweden and raised in Germany before living for over a decade in Finland and then Denmark, Rinne moves easily between languages: in Notes her base is English, but an English laced with echoes of French, German, occasionally another language. The poem is both visual composition and sound text: recorded by Rinne and accompanying soloists with music and sound design by Sebastian Eskildsen in Copenhagen in 2011, this elaborate echo structure, with sounds ranging from gong to passing train, is available at PennSound.
Here is the visual configuration of the first two facing pages:
Cia Rinne, from notes for soloists.
When Robert Creeley wrote his “Numbers” series in the late 1960s, he did not decompose the words themselves; in notes for soloists, however, the number 1 quickly morphs into “one,” the German “ohne” (without), “oh no, ono” (as in Yoko), and then “on, o,” with the echo of “(oh no).” The next section treats the number 2 as the reversal of “one/on,” and “to” has its homonyms “two” and “too.” But it is the third section where things become complicated. Words beginning with “to” are broken so as to become infinitives. It begins low-key with cases where “to” is a separate syllable, as in “to tal,” “to lerance,” “to morrow,” and “to rah.” But then come diphthongs, first on “o” like “to ol,” but then on “oa” like “to aster,” and finally single-syllable words that give us “to p,” “to ss,” “to sh,” and at last, “to o,” bringing us back full circle to the first lyric, and hence zero.
Notes for soloists exhibits an extraordinary eye and ear for sound echo, homonym, and paragram. Even the days of the week, the “tou jours,” become interesting. And on the next page “N 29” is first taken apart as “No 2 9,” then spelled out to become “no two nine,” and finally transformed by homonym and German translation to “no to nein.” Or again, on the next page Rinne explores the effect of spacing:
Allow for a single space, and the meaning reverses. Rinne’s seems to me the perfect poem for the age of digital composition, when, as we know, every character and space makes a difference. Mistake a single letter, number, or punctuation mark, and you have altered what the text “says” beyond recognition. Moreover, omission or duplication has consequences: think of paying a bill of $67.50 online and omitting the decimal point. The Bank, as I know from experience, will not let you off easily. And neither, in the case of poetry, will a future audience.
What, in this new poetry, has happened to the authentic voice? Where is the expressive self of “Belly Song,” of “Ten Things I Want to Throw at You,” or of “Those Were the Days”? The fabled “sensitivity” of the Creative Writer gives way to a sensitivity to language that is almost like a fever — a sensitivity that has been the distinguishing mark of the poet from the Troubadours to George Herbert’s “The Windows” and Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism,” to Emily Dickinson’s “My Life has stood — A Loaded Gun — ” and Susan Howe’s “That This.” Indeed, in one sense the poetry of Dworkin or Wolf or Rinne is perfectly traditional. It merely seems new because in the early twenty-first century, the equation of poetry with self-expression has become so normative.
Perhaps, then, the copying exercises Kenneth Goldsmith talks about in his address to the White House workshop come at a moment when students badly need tools to make constructs more satisfying than their attempts to bare their unique souls. As Rinne puts it in “notes for censorship”:
cut out from books
destroy the book.
someone will notice
3. According to Goldsmith in conversation, his invitation came from Joe Reinstein, the deputy social secretary at the White House, who told him he had loved the art gallery installation of Goldsmith’s Soliloquy and must have long been familiar with Ubuweb. Reinstein is married to the Fluxus artist Hannah Higgins, whose mother is the well-known Fluxus performance artist Alison Knowles, who was invited together with Goldsmith, thus literally sneaking in the avant-garde by the back door of the White House.
4. For the transcript of the opening remarks, visit the White House Press Office.
5. Note that this and the subsequent White House poems and prose commentaries cited are reproduced from the video and transcripts of the actual White House event available online, not from manuscript or printed versions.
7. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (1922: London and New York: Routledge, 1988), §5.62; Wttgenstein’s Lectures, Cambridge 1930–32, ed. Desmond Lee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 112.
11. See Joseph Kosuth, “Art after Philosophy” (1969), in Kosuth, Art after Philosophy and After, Collected Writings 1966–1990 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 13–32; Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967): 79–83.
15. See, for example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for the current consensus on the importance of conceptual art.
18. For both the text and a reading by the poet, see Billy Collins, “Forgetfulness.”
21. Kenneth Goldsmith, No. 111 2.7.93–10.20.96 (Great Barrington, VT: The Figures, 1997). Embedded in the larger text, the Lawrence story (588–606) escapes notice and hence required no copyright permission.
22. See Marjorie Perloff, “The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall,” Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy (Tuscaloosa: University of Abalama Press, 2004), 205–26.
25. I found this translation by Googling various Spenser sites and finding the notes to the most recent editions of The Faerie Queene. In the Internet age, accessing such information, which might formerly have involved a trip to the research library, takes just minutes, and poetry students like the ones who came to the White House could readily learn to find the text in question. Purists object to this practice as being merely mechanical — the “researcher” need know nothing or little about Spenser’s poem — but it may just be possible that the search would generate interest in The Faerie Queene.
27. Christian Hawkey, Ventrakl (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010), unpaginated. See my review in Los Angeles Review of Books, 17 May 2011.
28. Uljana Wolf, False Friends, trans. Susan Bernofsky (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), last page of unpaginated book. Wolf’s reading of extracts from the related Jane poems may be heard on YouTube.
Projection of the intimate into the historical
The Tolerance Project, what could be the first collaborative MFA in Creative Writing ever, has engendered many defining responses. Poet and scholar Jeff Derksen frames the project “within the history of conceptual art and its two strongest tendencies: institutional critique and the reconfiguration of artist as producer.” One blogger poet wrote that it “actively challeng[es] the stagnating culture of poetry workshops and the dominance of mainstream Romantic ideas propagated within them.” Another blogger poet opined that The Tolerance Project “explore[s] the civility agenda intrinsic to the MFA workshop experience.” Language poet and critic Charles Bernstein wrote me that it “promises to take on the institutionality of the MFA in a way that I haven’t seen before.” And some reactants claim that this collaboration “violates the privacy” and “sanctity” of the MFA workshop, while others have accused me of “cavalierly” using my “arrogance” to “GAME the system” — in big block letters.
While I appreciate the range of these takes on The Tolerance Project’s poetics, for me this is primarily a collaborative conceptual-performance project, a queer-in-more-ways-than-one response to how desire is constrained and regulated in the US, an examination of the governmental functions of docility (partly under the guise of tolerance discourse), the self-regulating “conduct of conduct” that occurs under the sway of institutional and repressive state apparatuses not only at the border but within the academic industrial complex or even the hospital, where I may not be allowed to visit my partner if she’s sick, or on the street where queer (mostly trans) sex workers get killed every day for sport. Suffice it to say that for me The Tolerance Project is not simply a set of poetic gestures; it has had daily real-world implications, so its lived material aspects are as important as its conceptual and poetic facets.
The project is influenced by theorist Wendy Brown’s book Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in Age of Identity and Empire, in which Brown examines how US government policy notions of tolerance have come to dominate pedagogy and other forums and have shifted discussions from challenging citizens to work on internalized and externalized racism, homophobia, classism, etc., to simply tolerating (or not, in the case of Islamophobia, for example) what we hate about the neighbo(u)r over the fence. As alluded to earlier with my use of the terms “docility” and “conduct of conduct,” Michel Foucault’s work is also key to the project. Discipline and Punish is an important inter-text, and both Brown and Foucault appear in The Tolerance Project Archive’s Office of Institutional Research, a key source of poetic DNA in the project.
As Derksen rightly deduced, the project is also influenced by Institutional Critique, which is a subset of conceptual art made famous by artists such as Daniel Buren, Michael Asher, and Andrea Fraser since the 1970s, and which looks at the systems and processes of art worlds and the solidification of the artist as commodity. Michael Asher made an important piece in 1974 in which the art viewer entered the Claire Copley Gallery in Los Angeles and was confronted simply with blank walls, no art objects anywhere to be seen. Gradually, the astute viewer (the one who doesn’t leave in flustered confusion) discovers that the only subtle manipulation Asher has made to the space has been to remove the wall separating the art dealer from the spectator, thus laying bare the invisible hand of commerce behind each art gesture. Andrea Fraser, who engaged in a well-known performance in 1989 where she posed as a tour guide in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and waxed on about the beautiful architectural composition of the museum cafeteria and Duchampian water fountains, even went so far as to have sex with an art collector for $20,000 in one infamous instance of Institutional Critique in 2003.
The Tolerance Project is also in conversation with the recent Conceptual Writing phenomenon thrust onto the public scene by Kenneth Goldsmith, Robert Fitterman, and Vanessa Place, among others. British artist and poet Brion Gysin (inventor of the cut-up technique) quipped in 1959 that “writing is always fifty years behind painting,” and indeed Conceptual Writing is a little late to the game for conceptual art practices made famous in the 1960s, many of which used similar textual modes of appropriation, constraint and polyvocality that are so trumpeted by Conceptual Writing folks. I was asked to be in a forthcoming anthology of Conceptual Writing by women (perhaps there is another more important one by men), and though I gave them some work, I don’t define myself as part of the Conceptual Writing movement (as Groucho keeps saying, I don’t want to belong to any club that will have me as a member). Though my work can employ allegorical and other strategies that Conceptual Writers promote (again via theories of conceptual art and Walter Benjamin, etc.), the product is always impure, and indeed too invested in meaning and materiality for some. “Context not content,” Fitterman once whistled pithily to me.
The Tolerance Project call
The Tolerance Project began with an email call on June 6, 2009, to more than 250 writers and artists across North America. For reasons that may become apparent, the call itself went through thirteen drafts as I dealt with intense focus-group feedback from my poetic peers, who warned me not to sound too “smug” or too “negative” or unwilling to engage in “community” with my fellow students; to especially avoid being threatening to my teachers; and to not exhibit a number of other adverbs and affects I can’t remember right now, affects that, as Derksen would later astutely notice, I was deliberately trying to circumscribe in order to place myself “outside of the feelings of the workshop” while being ensconced within it, doing something like a duration performance:
June 6, 2009
Subject: Donate your poetic trace to a worthy cause
Dear fine writers, artists and thinkers I admire,
I’m embarking on a two-year conceptual writing project — and I need your help. It’s participatory! This fall I will be entering The New School MFA in Creative Writing to work on my fifth book of poetry. The story behind that weird decision is long and at times boring boring, but the gist is my partner K. got a job at The New School in 2008 and because of the US Defense of Marriage Act, I was not allowed to move with her from Canada. I have “visited” K. and the lovely NYC this year, but that is no longer tenable and I need status at the border, which being a student brings for a couple of years.
Okay, here’s where you come in. As far as I can gather, part of The New School MFA involves writing poems each week — sometimes in specific forms and on assigned topics — and bringing them to class for critique. What I’d like to do is gather “poetic” material from you fine folks for a textual archive from which I will draw elements to create poems for the MFA. For example, if the assignment is to write a sonnet in the style of Petrarch on the colour purple, there’s bound to be something inspiring in the archive, even if only a hint of blue in a Fitterman tome or a yellow Levitsky sigh on the page. I will likely have to mash together multiple pieces of donated poetic material to fulfill the parameters of the week’s assignment, so there’s no worry that plagiarizing — that scourge of university campuses and influence anxiety everywhere — will come into play here. What you define as poetic material is up to you. It can be your favourite poem from your salad days in the MFA, it can be a grocery list, a picture, a philosophical treatise, a confession, manifesto, tweet to one of your thousands of friends — in short, it’s your poetic DNA, define it as you wish.
What I offer you is a chance to hear real feedback on your work from my fellow MFA students and our instructors. What I offer you is a chance to take part in what could be the first collaborative MFA thesis ever imagined! What I offer you is a chance to help out a queer poet who might just blow her head off if she has to look out her window and wait for poetic inspiration to come to her each week. How’s that for a good cause, eh?
Each poetic trace that you give me will receive a barcode that I will give you — you’ll see it on your donation receipt, which you can attempt to get a tax break for (good luck!). Starting this September, each week I will post the poem(s) I brought to class, plus the feedback I received, on a blog created for this project. Maybe it will be called The Tolerance Project, because, as Wendy Brown and the Museum of Tolerance have taught us so well, it’s important that we tolerate neighbo(u)rs and lifestyles and other things that we hate!
The pieces of poetic DNA used in the poem and their barcodes will also be posted on the blog, so you’ll know when your trace has been activated. I will include a comments section on the blog too, so you all and anyone else can put in your two cents toward creating the perfect MFA poem. I will then attempt to revise the poems according to all comments received and get closer to that messianic MFA perfection myself.
For my final thesis, I will collate the poem versions and responses and such and make something beautiful and grade A-worthy that everyone will want to publish. What else is an MFA in creative writing for?
So, I’m offering you participation in something pure, something purely conceptual, a collaborative idea that may not work but may be fun, an idea that will help me tolerate MFA school (and it me). Your assistance in this matter would be greatly appreciated.
Please send poetic material [by email] that you think would help me create the perfect MFA poem (come on, most of you have taken and/or teach in these programs!). At the end of the project, all barcode IDs will be revealed on the blog and in print, if it gets that far. Of course it’s fine if you’d rather remain anonymous too. I promise to only create poems from the project archive and to use at least an aspect of every piece of poetic DNA donated — so bring it on, bards!
Yours in canonical perpetuity,
After the thirteenth draft came as close to perfection as humanly possible, I sent the call out on June 6, 2009, to all the writers and artists I had email addresses for in North America, most of whom I didn’t know personally at all. As I performatively pressed “send” 250 times and imagined people’s responses on the other end, my sense of anticipation and mild fear was interesting. Would these people know who I was? Would they care? Would they write back? Would they narc to the “authorities” and have me kicked out of the country? It’s difficult to explain to United Statesians (to borrow Rachel Levitsky’s torquing of the colonial American) the daily fears of the precarious “alien,” and of course my situation as a white Canadian is nothing compared to “suspect” Mexicans or other brown people forced to carry nonexistent “papers” on their bodies in Arizona and likely soon a state near you.
But the fear, however borne from privilege and incomparable to the struggles of racialized peoples, was real. This is partly why I had decided to do the MFA, so that I could get two years in the US with my partner somewhat free of overriding anxiety. Yet, once I was accepted into the New School program (after an initial wrinkle due to my lack of a Bachelor’s degree — and a consequent intervention by a powerful Language poet, who assured the Dean that I had more “credentials” than students exiting the Ivy League PhD program where said poet taught), the anxiety merely shifted, when I realized I had no idea what poems I would work on during the MFA. I was in the final stages of editing my fourth full-length book, Neighbour Procedure, and not interested in “workshopping” (that awful neologism) those poems with people I didn’t know or trust, even if the poems could possibly make sense as stand-alone pieces, which they couldn’t. I’d also never taken part in a workshop, other than once in 1990, when I was living in what I called “the sex commune” in Winnipeg and was sort of forced to go to this weekend poetry workshop (long story … it was a fundraiser and one of the members had to go); at the time, I had never written any poetry at all, so had to bring an unfinished essay from my failed BA era on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that stopped after a page and a half when the reader became a travailer (i.e., the reader had to work like Christian to get anywhere). I actually wrote my first poem at this workshop, something about an abusive guy and a bellybutton, but hadn’t attended another workshop since. And, at the risk of sounding maudlin, my “little poet” inside, which I guess you could laughingly call a kind of “voice,” was mildly panicked at the thought of having to write an “experimental poem” or sonnet, villanelle, haiku or whatever assignment task I might be given each week, and I was more than a little worried that that little poet might shut up forever in protest.
Though my poetics changes with every project, the base of my work has always come from years of intense research collecting textual material and fumbling around with inexpert knowing. I am pretty much physically unable to write poems by looking out my window at the birds or at my inner consciousness, and I tend to depend on that archival crutch, feel safer with my hoard of research or marbles in place to work and play with. Hence, K. and I came up with the idea to make the MFA process collaborative and have people donate “poetic DNA” from which I would cull the MFA poems. Not only would I get my language archive, and sort of feel in control of one part of my existence in the US (much as of course the archive always swerves slant just out of grasp), but the project would push the boundaries of the workshop, and of course its buttons too. The project’s constraints, where I would only make poems from the donated textual material, would mimic the constraints I was living under on a daily basis. The extensive time and labor involved with the project — which included organizing an enormous amount of material in various forms, extensive communicating with collaborators, dealing with finicky barcodes, and wrangling with blog software, not to mention combing through the archive and actually writing the poems as well as participating in classes week in and week out — also reflected the quotidian nature of the physical and emotional labor involved with figuring out how to be here with my partner and for how long and how to make money to survive, etc.
The project would of course also test the limits of what is deemed originality within the “American MFA industry.” The notion of defamiliarizing Romantic originality and transparent self-expression is not new, but the MFA is, of course, still designed to churn out marketable “author functions” (to use Foucault’s term) and mostly not set up to tolerate much difference from or opposition to that saleable norm. The “American MFA industry” is poet and activist Mark Nowak’s term for “the multimillion-dollar conglomeration of state and private enterprises within the neoliberal language industry that has developed in continuum with the crisis of global capitalism over the past four decades” that he examines in a well-known essay published in 2004 called “Neoliberalism, Collective Action and the American MFA Industry.” In the essay, he “reconfigure[s] the work of Adorno and Horkheimer (‘the culture industry’) and Charles Bernstein (‘official verse culture’) by examining an industry and culture at all stages of production, exchange, consumption, and reproduction.” He continues:
As an industry its objectives include the market socialization of the contemporary “poet & writer” and the neoliberalization of its relations of production. Through its rapid expansion in the late 20th century it has produced a largely under- or unemployed workforce of “poets & writers” in free market competition for jobs (advertised through the MLA job information list, the AWP job list, and the Chronicle for Higher Education career network) and publication opportunities …
… A new social formation for the collective cultural worker must replace the stereotypes of the hermetic, visionary artist (the product of early capitalism) and the market-socialized neoliberal artist (the product of late capitalism and the American MFA industry). One question at hand is whether the American MFA industry is capable of producing anything other than the neoliberal writer.
In response to Nowak and further to Derksen’s reference to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the author as producer, it was important to me to look at the institutional processes involved in my being in the MFA, and how I was being constructed and reconstructed while I attempted to sit placidly in my seat in the classroom for the two years it would take me to become accredited to teach other writers. Hence my decision to expand the authorial creation and feedback process beyond the confines of the workshop room, as a way of examining the inner workings of the MFA, in the tradition of conceptual art’s Institutional Critique, and also to see how these processes operate within larger state and cultural apparatuses. I was here influenced by Louis Althusser’s writings on Ideological and Repressive State Apparatuses (ISAs and RSAs), through which the subject is “interpellated” — called into being — by a force outside herself that torques her subjectivity with its loud “Hey, you!”
Rachel Zolf in Brooklyn, May 2011. Photo © Brian Adams.
A hoard of poetic DNA
The response to The Tolerance Project call was enthusiastic, and the material donated from eighty-six writers and artists across North America was vast and varied. A number of donations looked like they could be actual poems or notes toward poems. Sometimes they had titles. Among the poetic DNA traces, there were photos, pop songs, syllabi, blood sugar charts, parking tickets, pet-loss odes, prayer lists, to-do lists, lists of aphorisms, lists of library headings, list of chemicals, lists of Facebook updates, academic and layman articles, prose musings on stray facts, museum objects, and even a breast cancer diagnosis and two medieval gynecological texts. Some donors gave whole books of their own poetry. One donor gave a multitude of email spam, which (strangely, or perhaps fittingly) proved to be the most poetic of all donations, this trace appearing in The Tolerance Project poems more often than any other. One judge kindly gave a ruling, another lawyer a note of appeal. A corporate hack writer parted with some corporate hack paragraphs; a few activists telegraphed activist texts. One mother sent her son’s dinosaur poem; another mother some posts from the “parents of twins listserv”; yet another sent some musings on breastfeeding and chemicals. There were translations of history texts, strangely beautiful paratactic sentences generated by an online engine, and even two love poems addressed to me. One donor gave a stack of response papers she had written to her peers during her own time in the MFA. Another donor chose to remain anonymous, because the donated material was scathingly insensitive feedback she had received from a key instructor in the New School program (e.g., “There is nothing in this that interests me.”… “You might want to give up on poetry entirely and take up creative non-fiction, perhaps even learn to write linearly and write your own memoir.”…“Why don’t you try centering all your poems — both physically and theoretically?”). Both this donation and the one from the other former MFA student would prove to be very useful after the event described below.
Here it makes sense to skip ahead to the “event” that sort of sideswiped me in the first term of the MFA and The Tolerance Project — even though I had guessed an event would occur. There tends to be some kind of event generated by my work, whether it be a potential lawsuit or other threat, such as being kicked out of job, country, or family. K. and I were aware of this risk when we came up with the idea for me to attempt to do the MFA and then to do The Tolerance Project — we suspected both would be awkward fits. This awareness of risk added another layer of tension to the process, and frankly to our relationship, which had experienced its strains as a result of our separate and common anxieties about my immigration status. One might ask, why take the risk of doing a controversial project based in a seemingly negative stance when it could affect your visa status and your partner’s precarious job security as an untenured professor at a new institution, not to mention piss a lot of people off? We thought about these issues, and I’m using “we” because both K. and I were implicated by the choices that went into conceiving and following through on this project. But we still felt compelled to go forward, primarily because both of our practices involve examining the rhetorics of structures and ideologies and discourses from within and without, this is what we both do. And negation can be a productive creative space, however fraught, acting as a kind of psychic protection against falling into docility. The line of creation is the same as the line of destruction. Nevertheless, neither K. nor I was sure what blowback this particular risky venture would generate.
The cataclysm occurred after I posted on The Tolerance Project blog some anonymous feedback that my classmates in my first term (fall 2009) workshop wrote on my poems. Somewhat like a reality TV show for poets, as mentioned earlier, I had promised my collaborators constructive criticism by “real” MFA students and teachers. By that stage of the workshop (mid-October), I had drawn on Juliana Spahr’s donation to bring in a poem about the chemicals in breast milk that I’m sure led some people to assume I had a child. K.’s DNA was the source for a love poem/manifesto about my fears at the border due to my naïve “radical honesty” that never works. (Incidentally, students had a lot of trouble with that poem’s pseudo-typewritten x-ed-out words mimicking tweaked-to-the-last-minute political manifestos of the 1980s.) And just to shake things up a bit, I had also brought in a poem from my third book, Human Resources, partly about Adrienne Rich using a form letter from Norton to let me know that I wasn’t allowed to use a piece of her famous lesbian sonnet sequence, “Twenty-one love poems,” in my first book (that was back in the 1990s when we used to ask permission). I thought people might get a giggle or something out of the Human Resources poem. Instead, I got a range of epistemological reactions that circled like a chorus around the cramped and sweaty little workshop room, and later on the copies of the poem that students gave back to me. As had been my habit up until then, I posted this constructive feedback “as found” (but anonymously, as a choral response, just as I had experienced it), preceding the poem on The Tolerance Project blog:
“I don’t know what this is about — I am pretty sure I am not part of the target audience”; “I can’t find much to hold it together beyond its instruction manual style tone”; “I’m confused by the poem”; “doesn’t seem to hang on its own”; “I don’t get it; or I don’t see how these things are related”; “I can tell some of the expressions are meaningful, to someone – but I can only read them and read on”; “I don’t get it”; “I don’t think I ‘get’ it.” “C3I = Church?”; “flarf?”; “a bit cynical, in a way, how certain things are unquestionably negative”; “do you not want a title!?”; “particularly don’t understand ‘communities of meaning’”; “not convinced with the [George] W. imagery, it’s an easy out …”
What seems to have happened is that soon after I posted the Human Resources poem and its feedback on The Tolerance Project blog, a teacher of mine in the MFA program — strangely enough, not my workshop teacher — went to the blog for the first time, and apparently this teacher was quite disturbed by its existence. A number of discussions ensued, including one between this teacher (a well-known New York School poet) and my workshop teacher, and one between this teacher and a famous Language poet (who has nothing to do with the New School program), and one between this famous Language poet and me, and then, finally, one between said offended New York School teacher and me, in which the gist was that the teacher thought I was “violating the privacy of the workshop structure.” The teacher vehemently did not appreciate the term Institutional Critique, and didn’t think the MFA administration would either, and by the end of all this discourse, enough subtle or not so subtle admonitions had been communicated that I became sufficiently paranoid of being kicked out of the program (and hence country) that I decided to remove the anonymous comments from the blog and put them in the private space of Facebook.
Everything happened very quickly, and in a two-hour blur before the next workshop a couple days later, I wrote a statement to read to my bewildered workshop-mates, who hadn’t even bothered to go to the blog. I had quickly told them about the project and the blog in the one minute we got to introduce ourselves in the first class, but the rest of the workshop term had been devoted pretty much solely to the black ink bits on the page. Writers were barely allowed to respond to feedback on their poems in class, let alone discuss their work in any larger context.
But back to the statement: I had written to my workshop teacher in advance of class that I would use my slot in the “Issues in Writing” portion of the workshop (which fortuitously happened to coincide with that night) to speak to this controversy related to my MFA project, as it seemed an appropriate issue for discussion. The teacher’s response, with no explication, was that I should stick to the original idea I had proposed, which (somewhat ironically) had been to use Charles Bernstein’s essay “The Difficult Poem” as a teaching tool. After I held back my terrified impulse to vomit and came to class and read the statement out anyway (which included an apology for any confusion or upset caused if I hadn’t been clear enough about my project), one of the students gave me a thumbs up, and another shrugged and later said to me, “I thought everything was public.” The workshop teacher spoke about preserving the “sanctity” of the “safe” workshop space, where “you can feel like you can do anything” (except something like The Tolerance Project).
After the teacher spoke, we were given no time to discuss the controversy, and I realized I had to quickly talk about Charles’s essay so the teacher wouldn’t fail me. I later sent all the students an email asking how they wanted to move forward, and by that time enough of them weren’t interested in my posting their anonymous feedback on the blog that I decided it was too much trouble to push that aspect of the project further. I encouraged the students to use the blog’s comments field to post their feedback on the poems themselves (anonymously or not). As far as I know, few students from that workshop have posted on the blog — but I could be wrong, given the anonymous comment option.
I posted the statement that I read out to class on the blog on October 13, 2009, and here is just a short excerpt from it:
The focus of my project is not this particular MFA. The blog doesn’t even name where the MFA is taking place, as what is most important for my project is that it is a collaborative take on the MFA as an institution within larger state apparatuses. That is the key concept behind my project, a deconstruction of how “authors” and “voices” are created through the process of the MFA, linked with how difference is “tolerated” (or not) in general in the US. I wanted to provoke a look at how the MFA works as a process, by deliberately blowing up the authorial creation and feedback process beyond this room. There is a long tradition in the art world of looking at the workings of art institutions such as art museums and art collecting practices and the creation of the artist as a commodity. In fact, if you remember the poem I brought last week about Adrienne Rich and the form letter … that is from my book Human Resources that looks at capitalist and corporate structures and even has a poem about famous American conceptual artist Andrea Fraser videotaping herself having sex with a collector for $20,000 and displaying the tape in an art gallery. How’s that for an exposure of art as a commodifying institution?
Some interesting discussion in the blog comments stream ensued. One anonymous commenter’s long post started with the strange solecism, “I empathize deeply with the state-sponosored [sic] homophobia of the US government,” then went on to bemoan my “lack of educational humility,” calling this apparent lack “ludicrous and shaming to say the least,” and, among other things, venturing that I was “simply enrolled in the MFA to GAME THE SYSTEM” and had “bought into the arrogant, hyper-commercial notion of an MFA degree as essentially empty careerist teaching accreditation.” Finally, the commenter asked, “do you even give a darn about truly teaching anyone in the future in a way that mirrors how you **could*** have been guided if only you were open and not bitter?”
Poet and academic K. Silem Mohammad responded to this commenter with the following statement (excerpted):
Let’s talk about arrogance. Boiled down to their essentials, these comments amount to the following: “How dare you enter into an institutional structure with a negative hypothesis about its methods and objectives? How dare you challenge the participants in that system to examine that structure and their roles in it? How dare you come into this system with an idea of your own? How dare you pursue your course of inquiry without submitting to the very conditions of supervision and control it is partly your objective to question? How dare you use the position you have been so benevolently granted within this institutional structure to advance a project that is critical of that structure, and how dare you attempt to critique the criticisms of that project you receive therein?”
Wow. Even taken on their own terms, the commenter’s objections are often nonsensical: in what way is the “notion of an MFA degree as essentially empty careerist teaching accreditation” a “hyper-commercial” one? Isn’t commerciality precisely what such a notion protests?
… Any system that can’t tolerate being “gamed” when the alleged game consists of nothing more insidious than a legitimate interrogation of that system’s efficacy doesn’t deserve to sustain itself.
Another anonymous commenter self-identified as a second-year New School MFA student, whom I’d supposedly never met, but who claimed to have been “a provocateur in the program to a certain degree” and who pointed to “some issues which I think your enthusiasm may have caused you to overlook.” The commenter continued:
Many of our classmates are very young, fresh from undergraduate programs, and while they have the excitement for poetry they still trust very much in the system. They are looking at this program through the fogged lens that lets them see the glory of themselves as future masters, and the slightest moment of instability that they feel may give them pause. I'm not saying that giving them this is a bad thing, it is perhaps the best lesson one can learn, but it is a point that you should consider.
The commenter went on to warn me that “our program buys into the ‘positive and nurturing’ MFA philosophy, whether it be because of cynicism (‘why not nurture, they’ll never go anywhere anyway’) or a true desire to progress the arts I don’t know, but any critique of the system will draw out the ire, especially by the individuals who stand to face the direst consequences, i.e. the position of teaching creative writing will fight for its life while being exposed as a fraud or mocked in any way.”
Poet Lisa Robertson posted a comment asking, “What’s with all the anonymity here in the comment polis? Do I sense fear? I think so.” She spoke to the professionalization of poetry in the US and her own struggles to get work here without an MFA or BA, even with a widely read and respected oeuvre. She continued:
Most Canadian poets do not have MFA’s. We think there are many ways to become a poet, even a very good poet, and so we set about inventing ourselves and our communities (and our arguments and enemies! We do not follow the support and nurture model of learning — it’s more the swill and swear model.) … I have played the game in order to have my little visiting positions [in the US], which are the positions available to an MFA-less poet. But we all know this: nobody needs an MFA in order to write a poem. It’s another mode of regularization. Because of love and politics and economics some of us step through some of the hoops. Rachel is displaying the hoops publicly instead of pretending they’re natural. This is what an engaged poet does. This is a real time engagement with form. Why agree to protect the naive? Why not explore together how power works? She has guts. Maybe a little more arrogance would be in order, if this is arrogance. I’d call it discourse, simply.
Jeff Derksen’s comment post came closest to describing The Tolerance Project as I see it:
When Rachel first announced her project, I thought that — by using poems from a transnational community as source texts — it was structured to test the concepts of originality and self-expression within a creative writing MFA program. And the project was also going to foreground the social context that it is as taking place within — the USA’s nonrecognition of same-sex partners and restrictive immigration policies. The project struck me, to use a phrase from Walter Benjamin as an investigation of “the projection of the historical into the intimate” and also a critique based on a reversal, of a projection of the intimate into the historical and structural (from the state to the university to an MFA program to everyday life). These aspects seem to solidly put the project within the history of conceptual art and its two strongest tendencies: institutional critique and the reconfiguration of artist as producer. So the roots of this project can be traced from Walter Benjamin, through the institutional critique phase of conceptual art up to the type of art as commodity critique that Andrea Fraser has spectacularly engaged in. Given this, it would seem like an ideal project for a research university with a radical heritage. In the statement on her blog, Rachel is pretty clear about the critical heritage of her project and points out that part of her project is to take the workshop feedback as also part of an institutional mechanism. I know of many MFA projects in visual arts that have done similar things and have not met with the same nervousness (and most forms of institutional critique have been institutionalized in the art world …).
And Lisa’s comments also show what is at stake beyond the feelings in a MFA workshop (which is the space that Rachel’s project was exactly aiming to be outside of). There is a simultaneous professionalization of the university and the “creative industries” in it and the precariousness of many jobs in universities. So writers and artists are being asked to do more to get less (and being asked to be “flexible” and move from city to city and negotiate the tough J1 visa which was the class of visa clamped down on after 9/11). This set of relationships is what critical/conceptual practises are supposed to show or reveal: the dialectic of possibility and restriction, of forms and scales of “freedom” and, of course, the possibilities of art as a form of knowledge/research/expression. So rather than critique being understood as “arrogance”, I’d rather think of it as “sincerity” (in the way the Objectivists drew on sincerity).
I was heartened to get these and other responses, but my consequent response was to go into retrenchment mode, thoroughly emotionally exhausted. I decided to concentrate on getting through the program without another “event” occurring. I kept quiet. I wrote poems that no one got. And I attempted to mend fences with the New York School teacher who didn’t like the blog by giving said teacher a green dinosaur brooch I found on the floor.
But alas, it wasn’t going to be my fate to avoid further controversy, and in the second term I had a strangely terrifying encounter with a nonfiction teacher (I was taking a little break from poetry) who actually screamed at me in response to my holding a different opinion from her about a George Orwell essay. But I won’t get into that event, because it wasn’t focused on The Tolerance Project and I, fortunately or unfortunately, was not the only one to experience the wrath of this particular teacher in that bizarre class.
On the bright side, term two’s workshop turned out to be much more bearable than term one’s had been, particularly with the addition of one curious student who was interested in “innovative” work, and a more laidback teacher, Mark Bibbins, who was supportive of my project. I even collaborated with the student, Jeff T. Johnson, on a poem, and he wrote another poem riffing on The Tolerance Project blog comments stream. And interestingly enough, other students in the workshop who had been quite resistant to my work in the first term opened to it a little more this time around, perhaps because the groupthink “I don’t get it” attitude was not given as much sway in this class.
So I was able to get into the swing of writing poems for the project in a much freer way than I had in the previous workshop. I honed a method of using search terms related to what I was thinking and feeling in the moment and then rooting around in the archive to make poems riffing off the lines that came up in the search and nearby lines that popped out at me. I started with search terms such as “tolerance,” “respect,” “economy,” “catastrophe,” “horses,” “dinosaur,” and even “love.” Just as an example of how my mind would swerve based on my circumstances, partway into the second term I found myself going down one particular path in the poems for a little while. As befits my anxious DNA, I had already started to get worried about what I was going to do after the MFA, and considered applying to get into a PhD program in English in New York in order to give me a few more years in the US with my partner, and the credential that is in the process of superseding the MFA for poets like me to get any work at all in North America. In order to even contemplate applying for PhD school, though, I had to get over the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) hump. So I spent a couple months dusting off twenty-three years of math cobwebs, memorizing thousands of arcane vocabulary terms I’ll never use, and attempting to learn how to write a five-paragraph essay the GRE grad student markers would be pleased by. I found the whole process quite frustrating to say the least, even though I got the score I needed to on the GRE (bombed the math, though). Indeed, I found studying for the standard GRE such a colossal waste of time that I decided to cancel the Literature GRE slot I had signed up and paid for, knowing that my cursory movie version of studying (renting all the BBC movies on “great books” on Netflix) wasn’t going to lead to a good score on what is an impossible test of memorized middle-class cocktail banter designed to weed out those with little cultural capital and/or bad memories for dates and names. I guess you could say I reached a hard limit with this particular hoop and couldn’t bring myself in any conscience to jump through yet another round in the docility sweepstakes (mixed metaphor intended).
In response to this failed attempt to continue my travails as a forty-two-year-old student in and of the US academic industrial complex, I ended up writing a few poems that referred to the US “mental measurement” tests and their origins in the early twentieth-century American eugenics movement that prefigured and inspired the Nazis’ grand eugenics performances. The American scientists involved in those early eugenics tests (and sterilizations of the “mentally unfit,” etc.) were also the progenitors of the Educational Testing Service that oversees the GRE and countless other gatekeeping tests in the US that are an arm of the education system’s regulatory and regulating apparatus. The links between my mental measurement journey and my MFA accreditation/nonresident alien journey were indeed ironically apparent. Perhaps needless to say, I hadn’t had to write any standardized tests during my schooling in Canada.
In term two, I also wrote a few poems based on the controversy over my project from term one. Luckily, as mentioned above, one Tolerance Project donor, Sarah Dowling, had donated a lot of feedback she had written in response to her colleagues’ poems during her MFA; so, coupling this with the feedback from the anonymous donor who had so suffered during her experience attempting to write “experimental” poems in the New School MFA program, and with the addition of other complementary Tolerance Project material, I was able to make poems that addressed the issue of term one’s “event” without actually using any of my own poet-colleagues’ comments, and thus not “violating the privacy of the workshop.”
The Tolerance Project Archive revealed
By the end of term two, I had survived half of the MFA and indeed had already managed to use a tiny bit of my eighty-six donors’ poetic DNA. I decided it would be an interesting shift in the project to make the archive public at this point, so I worked with designer HR Hegnauer, who created the clever Tolerance Project logo (a riff that K. thought of on the hip New School graffiti-in-the-city logo), to put the donation archive on the web. I had originally planned not to reveal the donor identities until the end of the MFA, but since I had used a trace of everyone, it seemed right to make the collaboration more visible and expand its reach. With the archive now up on the web, the barcodes below the poems on the blog became live links back to the poetic DNA donations from which I had culled material for each poem. This simple linking act made it instantly clear that each poem written for The Tolerance Project was much more than the sum of its stanzas on the blog, and that part of the act of reading the poem involved clicking on the barcodes and absorbing the donated material that emerged. The poems themselves as presented on the blog enacted the destabilization of the canonical western authorial “voice” and its singular ownership framework. The reader was thrust into the collaborative position of becoming coproducer of the text, not simply consumer of the Word of MFA genius.
To stretch the collaboration trope even further, in term three I worked with a number of other writers and artists to create poems for the blog. One collaboration was with Kai-Fierle Hedrick as part of an artist residency with the UK’s Department of Micro-Poetics at the AC Institute in New York’s Chelsea art district. Together we wrote a sequence of poems responding to the exhibition EXCHANGE VALUE at the AC Institute. Fierle-Hedrick wrote onsite at the gallery, then forwarded an ekphrastic poem to me at the end of each session. I then identified a set of search terms in Fierle-Hedrick’s poem and used these to generate a new response from within The Tolerance Project Archive. My poetic permutation then served as the starting point for Fierle-Hedrick’s next session in the gallery, and so on for three sessions. The residency explored a variety of exchanges and mappings — ekphrastic, dialogic, technological — in addition to embodying some of the challenges and creative loopholes of distance collaboration.
I also wrote a Tolerance Project poem in response to a photographer’s request to create a written “frame” for one of his photos, as well as writing two occasional poems for specific anthologies using specific search terms. Near the end of the project, my MFA thesis supervisor Mark Bibbins even wrote a guest poem riffing on the sponsored search results in The Tolerance Project Archive. It is interesting to read through these final poems of the project and see how the themes that emerged at the beginning of The Tolerance Project related to constraint and freedom and docility and collaboration and response have remained as traces throughout the course of the project, even with the variety of approaches to making poems.
The future of tolerance
Poet and Tolerance Project collaborator Erín Moure suggested that I could publish two companion books out of The Tolerance Project, one with the poems and one with the large archive of donated poetic DNA; but I think the project is best situated as it is on the web as a kind of hypertext moment that could last forever. I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of the treasures that The Tolerance Project Archive could yield, and I think there are still some artistic, playful, and pedagogical uses it can perform over time — by others than me. Duration Press has kindly agreed to host the archive for free, so maybe The Tolerance Project will attain canonical perpetuity as a duration performance (pun intended). Not only is The Tolerance Project’s hypertext quality so key to the way the blog poems interact with the archive and expand its reach, but the blog comments section is also integral to how the poems are read and received. One could also say it’s fitting that The Tolerance Project not become yet another book of MFA poetry. As K. remarked in a talk at CUNY on queer/feminist literary nostalgia, “the desire is not to get somewhere,” the “desire is for desire” itself.
It is also perhaps fitting (and perhaps a little tragic) that the culmination of The Tolerance Project has been the breakup of my relationship with K. Perhaps all the pressure of projecting the historical into the intimate and the intimate into the historical — and present and future — in the end proved to be simply intolerable.
Now, of course, I am recalibrating, and wondering if I can live like many of my poet colleagues in New York as an adjunct “professor” teaching first-year composition classes with little pay, no job security and no health benefits. Not to mention dealing with having to cross the border to get a different visa for each institution I work at in each and every contingent term. That is even if I can get work in a tight post-“recession” market. After all is said and done, I may be forced by fiat or resignation to go back to Canada and figure out some other new way to make a living besides teaching, because, fortunately or unfortunately, not every student in Canada has to take a first-year composition class, and MFA programs have not yet done their viral thing there. Yes, indeed, the irony is not lost on me that I may have gone through all this enormous trouble GAMING THE SYSTEM for nothing but three useless block letters next to my name.
The Tolerance Project collaborators are: Sandra Alland, Gary Barwin, Emily Beall, Joel Bettridge, Gregory Betts, Christian Bök, Jules Boykoff, Di Brandt, Laynie Browne & Jacob Davidson, Kathy Caldwell, Angela Carr, Abigail Child, George Elliott Clarke, Stephen Collis, Communications & External Affairs, Jen Currin, Moyra Davey, Anonymous Donor, Thom Donovan, Sarah Dowling, Marcella Durand, Kate Eichhorn, Laura Elrick, Jennifer Firestone, Rob Fitterman, Jenna Freedman, Dina Georgis, Barbara Godard, Nada Gordon, Kate Greenstreet, Rob Halpern & Nonsite Collective, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Holbrook, Catherine Hunter, Jeff T. Johnson, Reena Katz, Bill Kennedy, Kevin Killian, Rachel Levitsky, Dana Teen Lomax, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Jill Magi, Nicole Markotic, Dawn Lundy Martin, Steve McCaffery, Erica Meiners, Heather Milne, K. Silem Mohammad, Anna Moschovakis, Erín Moure, The Office of Institutional Research, Akilah Oliver, Jena Osman, Bob Perelman, Tim Peterson, Vanessa Place, Kristin Prevallet, Arlo Quint, Rob Read, Evelyn Reilly, Lisa Robertson, Kit Robinson, Kim Rosenfield, Paul Russell, Trish Salah, Jenny Sampirisi, Heidi Schaefer, Susan Schultz, Jordan Scott, Evie Shockley, Jason Simon, Cheryl Sourkes, Juliana Spahr, Christine Stewart, John Stout, Catriona Strang, Chris Stroffolino, Michelle Taransky, Anne Tardos, Sharon Thesen, Lola Lemire Tostevin, Aaron Tucker, Nicolas Veroli, Fred Wah, Betsy Warland, Darren Wershler, and Rita Wong. Profuse thanks to all donors for your steadfast collaborative energy and patience for the duration.
Particular thanks must go to Kate Eichhorn for her enduring contribution to The Tolerance Project.
A final note
So so sadly, far beyond words, two of our beloved collaborators died during the duration of The Tolerance Project. Rest peacefully astounding luminous minds and bodies, Barbara Godard and Akilah Oliver.
And farewell, too, to gentle soul Paul Violi, one of The Tolerance Project’s final MFA teachers.
2. Jeff Derksen comment to October 13, 2009, post on The Tolerance Project blog. See comments section below post.
3. Eric Goddard-Scovel, blog post, December 14, 2009.
4. Alex Leslie, blog post, April 14, 2010.
6. See rest of this essay for more on privacy/sanctity comments. “GAME the system” etc. from comments section to October 13, 2009, post on The Tolerance Project blog.
10. See Communications & External Affairs in The Tolerance Project Archive for some of this focus-group feedback.
11. See Jeff Derksen comment below The Tolerance Project blog post, October 13, 2009.
13. First footnote to project email: “I want to assure everyone that NO MFA students will be harmed in thE MAKING OF THIS proJECT. They won’t be identified by name, and some may actually enjoy the project, since it won’t be a secret. We’re all collaborators in this grand Ponzi scheme, aren’t we?”
Subsequent note added at the talk I gave on The Tolerance Project at The Poetry Project, St. Mark’s Church, on May 19, 2010: “Just as an aside, I can’t take credit for the Ponzi metaphor. I heard it through the grapevine; some said it was Kristin Prevallet, who denied attribution and thought it might have been Rebecca Wolff, and they told two friends and so on and so on.”
14. Second footnote to project email: “If the queer thing isn’t clear, the point is I can’t enter and live in the US on a spousal visa (even if my partner and I swallowed our political aversion toward institutions like marriage, held our noses and took the plunge in Canada, the “event” wouldn’t be recognized at the Amerikan border). Why take the MFA and not a PhD or something else? Well, like a number of your favo(u)rite Canadian poets, I don’t have a BA, and no one’s going to let me into a PhD program without one. Going to The New School for the MFA was basically the only viable option, because the tuition will be largely covered, since I’m recognized by the school as a “domestic partner” of professor K. [last name deleted]. Yep, there are different rules for queers at the federal and state level. Pretty boring boring, eh?”
Subsequent note added at Poetry Project talk, May 19, 2010: “And an addendum to this — in fact I will be spending almost $30,000 to get the MFA because the tuition ‘benefit’ is added to K.’s salary and taxed at 50%, and I pay her the taxes. They used to have an exemption for a certain portion and then arbitrarily changed it for grad students. Another lovely surprise.”
15. Third footnote to project email: “In initial focus-group testing, some concern has arisen that this project may have a stink of the smug to it. Perhaps people think I am going to create deliberately ‘bad’ MFA workshop poems. This is not the case. The reality is that all of my work is based on collecting archives of material and drawing from them. And all of my work has a self-conscious ‘meta’ element to it. Tolerance and the MFA is the project because tolerance and the MFA has to be the project. The poems I create for The Tolerance Project will be real poems that will be critiqued and improved upon by real students and teachers and people like you who read the blog religiously and comment religiously. How much more open to ridicule can I make myself?”
19. All comments quoted in this section are from the comments section below the October 13, 2009, post on The Tolerance Project blog.
22. For “Exchange Value” collaboration, see Kai Fierle-Hedrick’s Guest poems on September 19 and 26, and October 3, 2010, on The Tolerance Project blog. See Tolerance Project poems 35, 36, and 37 for the response poems.
24. Immediately before publication of this essay, another ironic twist reared its mixed-metaphoric head, as I was offered a three-year contract as an assistant professor at the University of Calgary, hired partly to supervise grad students to completion of their creative (and critical) theses and dissertations. Perhaps the three block letters aren’t so useless after all, eh?
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.