Commentaries - April 2011

John Shea is writing a series of "Tales from Webster's," each constrained by inclusion, consecutively, of words from the dictionary. A recent work in the series runs from respiratory system to resuscitator. It has been published in Literal Latte here. He calls them tales; to me they read like poetry; the magazines published them under fiction. Pay the category no mind.

Poetry is an art of constitution. Not only plastic "composition." But not a graceful maneuvering of representations or descriptions or stories or denotations, all of which teeter precariously on the brink of fetish. - Bruce Andrews, "Constitution/Writing" (1981)

It turns out that people can't hear words in isolation very well. - Bob Perelman in "Sense"

Sources: Andrews: Open Letter 5th ser. 1 (winter 1982): 154-165. Perelman: "Sense" in Writing/Talks, p. 76.

I've made available a several-page excerpt from George Hartley's book on language poetry. This is the passage in which he outlines modernist influences: Dickinson, Stein, Ashbery, Williams, and Zukofsky. I chose a section that focuses particularly on Steinian and Ashberyian elements of the movement. On Stein:

Stein's importance for them appears to lie in the following qualities of her work:

1. Although her work appears to be meaningless, it does have meaning; in fact, it seems to be an exploration of the very conditions for meaning.

2. Meaning is not forwarded as something existing out in the world but as an interaction between subject and object.

3. Her work appears to operate under the assumptions of the Saussurean conception of meaning as a function of a system of difference.

4. She does not write in order to enclose (define, delimit, decipher) the world but to move within it; in other words, she does not function according to the static determinism of the noun but through the process of relationship.

5. Her foregrounding of the material side of language (sound, rhythm, syntax) is a formal analogy of the process of perception--the "movement 'spreading' from transparency . . . to the implied darkness & opacity of blindness."

typescript of William Carlos Williams translation of a poem by Li Po

One of my favorite bits of William Carlos Williams’s writing in the last years. It is dated February 26, 1958. On that day WCW sent a letter of Chinese American poet David Rafael Wang. Wang was something of a Poundian (a correspondent of Pound’s — and a bit of a Poundian nut). WCW sent Wang a quick translation he’d just then done of a poem by Li Po, and added a note: “You can't translate it and give its brevity and overtones that are given in the original language.” True enough, but what WCW does I find pretty compelling. Above I’ve reproduced the look of the letter’s page. I've always felt that the voice heard (not heard — pictured) is simultaneously both that of WCW and of Pound and that this letter to Wang was a message to Pound. I haven’t looked in the Wang-Pound papers to see if indeed Wang passed along some word of this to Pound but I’m betting he did.

We at PennSound have segmented Jennifer Moxley's reading in the Segue Series at the Bowery Poetry Club (New York), October 6, 2007. Click here for links to the recordings - the complete reading and individual poems by title.