It’s 1995. January 1. Ron Silliman, who had carefully planned this daily yearlong writing project, begins to write the first of what will be fifty-two sections of a series going under the title “You.” He worries about the war in Chechnya, and writes a sentence on that, and about acid rain, and that gets a sentence. He remembers his dreams. He overhears intellectual coffeeshop talk. It’s cold outside.
This would be the twenty-fifth book of The Alphabet; in the Alabama edition of that major assemblage, twenty-five years in the making, “You” begins on page 903, a long way in. Fifty-two sections, one for every week of 1995, each consisting of seven daily prose paragraphs, typically one, two, or three sentences each day. You write what you see, what you overhear, what news local (floods) or world (wars) occurs to you or impresses you, what you remember, what you know or think you know during these days. In one “You” is the diary in New Sentences of a year.
Here is a poem by Robert Penn Warren called “Tell Me a Story”:
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
It was the season before the elderberry blooms, Therefore they were going north.
The sound was passing northward.
This poem, which was required reading somewhere along the line, always irked me and I never bothered to think about why. (By the way, I saw and heard Warren read in person in maybe 1979 or 1980, at the University of Virginia, although I don't think he read the irksome poem. He did read “Bearded Oaks” as an encore and received a prolonged standing ovation.) Why am I irked? I listened to a discussion of the evolution of Warren's racism (see below) and then I knew a little more about why. It’s the absolute way in which northward movement is naturalized. It happens, the young southerner doesn’t see it, can’t see it, won’t see it, and the logic (it’s a certain season and “therefore” they go north) is fixed. Sure, in the poem he's a young boy and so “I do not know what was happening in my heart” we ascribe to innocence and inexperience. And yet this is not the kind of northern migration that one will ever actually come to know by experience; it’s a priori true. There's a dishonesty here in the slight implication that later one will know what is in one's heart.
Later Robert Penn Warren, who had been a racist, thought of himself as a reformed racist.
In this episode of Close Listening, Rachel Blau DuPlessis discusses her long poem Drafts, the relation between poetry and politics, and the contemporary state of gender issues in writing with host Charles Bernstein, and reads a selection from Drafts.
My final commentary focuses on writers reading the work of other writers. I was interested in recordings that did more than simply pay homage or celebrate an influence. The experience of listening to the following recordings was often one of hearing some aspect of the text come loose through the reader's voice instead of hearing the text being inscribed into a fixed state.
In a 1998 recording at the Kelly Writers House, Rachel Blau DuPless reads an excerpt from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land during a celebration of the Poems for the Millenium anthologies. DuPlessis explains: "The Waste Land isn't in this anthology. [. . .] Because of the price the Eliot estate charges." Instead of reprinting The Waste Land, Poems for the Millenium: Volume One includes a brief commentary contextualizing the poem's relationship to a range of modernist literary movements. DuPlessis continues: "I also wanted to note that there are always people missing whenever there are writers. There are people who aren't writing or can't write or don't write. And sometimes they get absorbed into the writers. And this is a section of The Waste Land that was basically spoken by Eliot's maid, named Ellen Kellend." By reading this passage from the poem, DuPlessis foregrounds the material conditions under which literature is created (or not created) and disseminated (or not disseminated).
This post explores the poem as index, bibliography, catalog, or otherwise arranged list. I want to consider the ways each piece overflows, suggesting threads that the listener might follow or complicating the idea of order under the guise of an ordering structure. I want to pay attention to the ways these recordings open up into the works of other writers and artists in addition to reflecting back upon the concerns of their respective authors.
Dated 1953. Published 1960. Picked up by moi in 1964 and purchased, not for ninety-five cents as priced on back (Totem Press), but for five francs twenty-five centimes, in Paris at Shakespeare and Company, which was almost the same as one dollar considering it had to fly the Atlantic, which it probably did on sheer exuberant sexual and lexical energy and gay will to power, which was clearly not masculinist will to power but impressive and powerful in a different “we are sissies” way, thereupon to be confronted by an immediate me who immediately couldn’t understand one word, but got the energy and the comedy and the insouciance and the verve and the nerve — and stored it up.
This time PoemTalk took on Canto III of Ezra Pound’s epic, The Cantos. For such a daunting task we gathered Kaplan Harris (who came from far-western New York State for the occasion), Richard Sieburth (the brilliant NYU Poundian, who interrupted a sabbatical to lend a hand), and Philadelphia’s own (and, originally, Brooklyn’s own) Rachel Blau DuPlessis.
We began by considering what Al – for lack (at the moment) of a better word – calls the four or five “blocks” of topical segments that Pound typically brings together in a collage of historical materials and genres. We work through these, explore the associations, and find our way back to Pound himself (presented in the first “I” of The Cantos), remembering himself young, penniless, ambitious, shut out of rightful civic entry – like The Cid, a hero of this poem; and perhaps, too, like (but also unlike) Robert Browning (who makes a slant appearance).
The third canto was drafted around 1917 and published between hard covers in 1924-25. Although Pound recorded several performances of other cantos through the years, he did not record this poem until the summer of 1967, when he was 81. The voice you hear in the PennSound recording is frail, although Kaplan and Richard both remind us that Pound is, even here, putting on the performance of weak retrospection (a specialty, as a matter of tone and also content, of the final cantos which he had been writing not long before this). What is remarkable is that the poem contains a memory already (when it was written) of a very early moment for the poet (1908), and now, nearly sixty years later, we hear the old poet remembering the memory. There are moments – words re-uttered – when he certainly comes alive through emphasis and what one might call “deep memory.”
We urge you to listen hard for Rachel's terrific riff on the importance of Pound's deployment of the "genre circus," and of Pound's late "my notes do not cohere" problem. "Notes," in themselves, are one of the many genres deployed, says Rachel.
And listen all the way to the end here, folks. In his “final word,” Richard treats us to a marvelous description of the role played in Pound’s complex conception of the poem by the hyper-desired figure of Inez de Castro, lover and posthumously exhumed and declared wife of King Pedro I of Portugal (in the 1350s). At left: Inez de Castro.
Richard Sieburth is also the author of “The Sound of Pound: A Listener’s Guide,” which is the most authoritative account of the recorded voice of the important modernist. The essay was written for PennSound and is linked from PennSound’s Pound page. Just to be clear: PennSound’s Pound page includes every recording of Pound reading his poetry that we know exists. As you will see from the credit lines and acknowledgments on that page, we depended on the kindness of many people to produce such a collection.