Commentaries - December 2008

Don’t let this scandal — one of the biggest in the history of American higher education — go unnoticed. The New York Times ran only this AP wire story, a few inches long, on a back page. Hard to believe the College Board would still be in business after having done this.

I’ve been rereading Jack Spicer’s Thing Language. I find very helpful three passages from Ron Silliman’s “Spicer’s Language,” in Writing/Talks, ed. Bob Perelman (1985):

[] Spicer, both as poet and linguist, rather aggressively disputed the valorization of language within the process of the poem. “Words are,” he said in Vancouver, “things which just happen to be in your head instead of someone else’s head ... The words are counters and the whole structure of language is essentially a counter. It’s an obstruction to what the poem wants to do.” (191)

[] [On the first poem in “Thing Language”:] I take it as no accident that the first word of the first poem ... is “This.” The assertion of presence is language’s most fundamental claim on subjectivity, at once both referential and illusory. (168)

[] [Spicer contends a] concept of an absent presence, the notion that you can have your cake and have (always, already) eaten it too; though, from either perspective, one is left hungry ... Spicer achieves this effect by yolking together two nouns, thing and language, into an adjective:noun relation ... The result is not quite an oxymoron, which would be too simple. The use of the nominative thing in the place of an adjective is more in line with the abominations of Leviticus, that thing and language shall not lie down together. As any linguist would know, things are not signs. They are not, in a linguistic sense, significant ... Yet both the universe of things and the system of language are total dimensions of reality. An inarticulate universe of all that is real versus a system of articulation which, as a whole, can communicate nothing, and which serves to isolate the individual, both from the universe and from others. This is a vision of language, of subjectivity, as total oppression. That is the fundamental premise of the book Language [where the poetic sequence “Thing Language” appears]. Later, it will be the thrust of Spicer’s dying words, “My vocabulary did this to me.” (169–70)

Here’s the first poem in Thing Language:

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.

“These three passages,” writes Murat Nemet-Nejat, “show Spicer’s profound pessimism about language, its insufficiency (as opposed to Duncan’s optimism). The first one particularly about the thinning of language, disputing its valorization, is nothing less than a poetic revolution, shifting the center of gravity from words themselves to the empty space surrounding them, creating a new space. It all starts I think with Homage to Creeley.”

Up at MIT Nick Montfort — embodying the perfect mixture of engineering and literary backgrounds — has his students do some serious web work in (I’m almost tempted to say) the old-fashioned put-it-up-on-the-web mode. One student project has been to make Des Imagistes of 1912, Ezra Pound’s gathering of imagists, available for the first time ever on the web. They’ve done a beautiful job of it. And even the URL — — is elegant. There it is. Gotta love that typeface, 1912’s version of mod. “This website uses a font stack of ‘Futura, Tahoma, Arial, sans-serif.’ Futura was designed between 1924 and 1926 by Paul Renner, and while Renner was not associated with the Bauhaus school of design, Futura is frequently used in connection with Bauhaus-related topics. The Bauhaus school was founded two years after Des Imagistes’ publication, and its aesthetics harmonize well with the nature of imagistic poetry.”

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