Commentaries - March 2009

Surpassing things we've known before (PoemTalk #15)

Lyn Hejinian, "constant change figures"

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Above is Lyn Hejinian's typescript of an untitled poem we've taken to calling "constant change figures."

It is one poem in a series Hejinian has been writing, a project she currently calls The Book of a Thousand Eyes. If it is finished (perhaps, she tells us, in the summer of 2009?), it might consist of 1,000 poems; more likely of 310 or a few more of them (the number she had completed at the time this episode was recorded). Some poems in the series appeared in The Little Book of a Thousand Eyes, published by Smoke-Proof Press--although, please note, our poem, "constant change figures," does not appear in that gathering. When Hejinian visited the Writers House a few years ago, she read 19 of these gorgeous little eyes, including ours. And it's the audio recording made during that reading that we use in our show.

To what extent does our notion of nature's picture--a picture of the many things we name "out there--surprass the things we already know? We seem to deem memory nature's picture. So to what extent is experience the result of our living in time, a state producing senses that are familiar and yet move us forward toward new and different effects?

So, truly, constant change figures the time we sense. "Figures" there--a transitive verb at that point--enacts things: change makes things, shapes them, renders them, gets things just so.

As you can tell from the recording, we were astonished that these words could accomplish all that thinking about words? Can you imagine writing a poem of nine triads, 27 lines in all, each line this carefully rendered--a poem that in all uses far fewer unique words than the total number of words in the poem, far fewer than conventional utterances would need to employ. Fewer, let's say, than required by the language of philosophy telling of the same phenomena.

During our lively Hejinian PoemTalk, Tom Mandel in particular works out for us the way the shifting yet repeating triads are enacted. Bob Perelman focuses on Steinian memory (forgetting something himself along the way), Thomas Devaney on the power of turned-every-which-way phrasal variations, Al Filreis on the Steinian mode (again) and the poem as a possible critique of the ideology of experience.

We agree that from the time of her great Stein talks* and of Writing Is an Aid to Memory Lyn Hejinian has conceived of writing itself, an act that is at once a matter of forgetting and remembering, as a definition (or an "aid" to the redefinition) of the past.

Is this poem itself--its very manner and form--an instance of what Hejinian famously observed in My Life - "the disquieting runs of life slipping by"? Yes. The four PoemTalkers seemed to agree on that at least. As Bob Perelman notes, the poem itself seems to slip by one. Succinct as it is, one can't seem to hold it all in one's mind at once.



* Click here for a PennSound recording of Hejinian talking about and reading her own writings through Gertrude Stein.

live-blogging from mega-churches

Four of our students are live-blogging from southern mega-churches this week. The photo above was taken during set-up for yesterday's gathering at a church in Virginia. Follow them as they go.

the new Booker T.

For the communist-affiliated Masses & Mainstream, novelist Lloyd Brown wrote a negative review of Ellison's Invisible Man in June of 1952. Here's a passage:

Here, as in James Jones' whine From Here to Eternity, is the one-man-against-the-world theme, a theme which cannot tell the "whole truth" or any part of the truth about the Negro people in America or about any other people anywhere.

Ellison's narrator-hero is a shadowy concept, lacking even the identity of a name, who tells of his Odyssey through a Negro college in the South, then to Harlem where he is hired by the Communists as their mass leader ("How would you like to be the new Booker T. Washington?'') for $300 cash advance and the munificent, depression-period pay of $60 per week; he is quickly disillusioned and, battered in body and soul, finds refuge down a man-hole from whence to write a book about it all.

It would not be in order here to speak of responsibility, for the writer has anticipated and answered that objection in the prologue: "I can hear you say, 'What a horrible, irresponsible bastard!' And you're right. I leap to agree with you. I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived."

The text of the whole review has been on my 1950s web site for 15 years and is one of the most often-visited pages I have.

new at PennSound

New, new, new...at PennSound: our Michael Davidson author page. Michael has been at UCSD since 1974, where he helped create the now utterly invaluable Mandeville Special Collections (which houses manuscripts of many avant-garde poets including George Oppen and Jackson Mac Low). He is the editor of a new edition of Oppen's collected poems (2002), has published many books of poems, and a number of critical books. Of the latter, The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century is probably the most well known (1989). My own favorite is Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word which is, in part, about the modernist documentary poem and was a real influence on my writing about the same form in my Counter-Revolution of the Word.

a pre-spring walk up the west side

Yesterday afternoon we walked from West 10th Street, up along the Hudson, to West 83rd. It's three miles (surprisingly). The much longed-for continuous parkscape along the west side of Manhattan isn't nearly finished yet, but of course one can walk or bike along a continuous path (rough in some places, temporarily wending through construction sites in others). And of course there are two beautifully designed sections of completed park--benches, separate bike and walking paths, lawn, playgrounds, boardwalks and docks, etc.