Commentaries - November 2011

From all accounts, Christopher Brennan (1870 - 1932) was an unusal Australian poet. This in two senses: he was an unusual poet and scholar, and he was unusually "Australian". Unlike a good slab of his contemporaries, Brennan was not at all interested in contributing to a national colonial poetic. He once said in an interview that he may as well have written from China, so unimportant was place and national identity in his work. His interest in the French Symbolists, especially Mallarmé, has been well documented, but even where that longterm engagement is concerned, Brennan never imagined he was a Symbolist. His way of describing his aesthetic affinities was to say simply that one must live in one's time, and must find others to get along with. The Symbolists happened to be those closest to his own conceit.

Nevertheless, he was utterly committed to a thoroughly European poetics. Some of his manuscripts are collected at the State Library of NSW, and when I looked through a box of his materials, I found extensive lecture notes, poems, lists, essays, criticism and correspondence in Latin, Greek, French and German. Included in this box was the original, meticulously handwritten study of Aeschylus (called AESCHYLUS: THE RESTORATION OF THE TEXT). Kate Fagan and Peter Minter, in their colloborative essay on John Tranter and post-modern poetics in Australia, name Brennan as one of a few poets who attempted a kind of inverted, "antipodean Orientalism," a move against the "transplanted and claustrophobic" influence of English literature on colonial poetry and an effort to recoup other exotic European figures for a constructed and portable poetic genealogy.

In the collections at the State Library, I found clippings from a column that Brennan wrote for The Bulletin (I could write at length about this, but for now let me say that the fact of this column in this paper is almost impossible to reconcile).  The column was called "Newer French Poetry," and the clippings at the State included entries on Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. Mallarmé's is dated September 9, 1899. I have excerpted here less than half the essay, which is a lengthy statement of poetics as well as a criticial review of specific poems. I was struck by a number of things: firstly, how close Brennan gets to anticipating, almost to the word, the axioms set out in "Imagisme". Secondly, by Brennan's oddly conspiratorial asides, and references to a "we" that is wholly uncertain. This, I think, betrays Brennan's anxieties and desires as a scholar so absolutely embedded in a virtual community. Also, I am fascinated by Brennan's critical assertion of the synthetic: especially as it is imagined in constant reference to melody and harmony. And finally, I am interested in Brennan's disparaging notion of the reader who "runs," as the one who reads quickly and demands clarity. This seems to be, among many other things, a call for slow reading. Brennan's defence of obscurity reminds me that the verb, to obscure, suggests one thing covering or hiding or displacing another thing. The one who runs will trip over and roll their ankle; the one who walks will find a way through the unanticipated arrangement.

I will end the excerpt with a pleasant discovery from the same box in the archive: a menu from February, 1920: In case you want to see what CB was eating. I like it because it reads like title page of the "Food" section of Tender Buttons.


Eden must be realised in art, apart from life : a possession not for one, since the individual here is marred and broken, but for all : a promised land into which only the type may enter. Poetry realises for us this type, this Eden-life, by its fusion of natural and spiritual fact, by the union of all the divers faculties of man, intellectual, passional, and sensual, in the one imaginative act. For the imaginative act is not, as vulgarly held, the irresponsible creation of unrealities : imagination is a faculty that perceives, outside of the dusty life of outer weariness, the adequacy of our spirit to those only perfect things, the things of beauty ; that unites all hints thereof into a perfect life, the only real one because alone worth being real. For Mallarmé the guide to this free and adequately beautiful life was an unparalleled insight into the very stuff of poetry, the analogies that obtain between things outside their dreary mechanism. He saw in the movement of an eddy, the dance of waterflies, the sweep of a planet, and the movements of thought, one rhythmical idea ; a ‘soul,’ he said, ‘is the inner aspect of a form.’ The universe is one vast rhythm and language exists to give it a soul. The perfect work would be the notation of just that rhythmic quality, that ‘musicality’ of all things, the hierarchic manifestation of all analogies. But this implies a revision of poetic form.

The early poems, that drew from Gautier the remark ‘somewhat wilful extravagance,’ are marked already by an extraordinary fusion of music and developing logic. The verse is dense with richness ; every syllable is in its right place as regards significance and as regards sonority ; and none goes by without yielding its due tribute (it is noted of Mallarmé that, in his talk, he seemed to dwell on every syllable). The later poetry, from Hérodiade onward, holds in every word a complexity of super-posed signification, in every line a complexity of concerted melodies. Mallarmé had begun to obey the law that for the poet no thought exists except as an image, an inseparable unity of significance and material beauty ; and that the image should be directly expressed, without introduction of unnecessary matter, Of course, if you adopt a scientific procedure, you can, of two harmonious elements, take each separately, state the fact that there is a harmony between them, and lay bare the process by which they are harmonized. A great many—I will not say how many—poets put all this into their poetry, the passages that have really passed through the crucible of imagination being borne up on a dense stratum of explanatory affidavit. This certainly conciliates the reader who wants to run. Mallarmé conceived that verse should present only the completed work of the imagination … There is no separate enunciation of the idea, no separate description of the object, and then sudden fusion of the two. The logic of the poem is that of the image : the handling is similar to that of music, the art most closely akin to poetry. Sets of images are chosen, containing their own significance, and harmonious among themselves, like the chords of music : instead of description, successive aspects of the image are presented. As the chords of a musical piece progress in relation to a certain melody, so are these image-complexes led by the emotion, which determines the sonority of the words : as the music chords wax and wane in complexity so the images : counterpoint being paralleled by the manner in which an analogy will summon up distant and kindred analogies, by the manner in which the significations lie within each other, progressively more general.

The result of all this, we are told, is obscurity. 

Who is it that tells us so? The Parisian journalist, promoted critic, pontificating in the name of “national clarity.”

‘Tis a fable which we should be wary in accepting. Recent events have shown that the French mind in general shows no special prerogative of clearness in the formation and association ideas : it can confound an ideal abstraction with certain individuals not to be named here and attribute to these the respect that supposed to be due to that. Examination of its literature shows that “clarity” is just a convention enabling the reader to run ; the demand of an easily clarified mind that dislikes being stirred anywhere but on its rhetorical surface, that hates being shown any other than the immediate, professional, official aspect of the world. “Social” in its essence, French literature, as Brunetière confesses, has been obliged to forego the higher lyricism. The Frenchman loves a formula and his “clarity” is generally just neat expression of the obvious and inessential. Mallarmé refused the inessential. — Parallel with this, one may observe how his poetry, synthetic and concentrated, has been charged with “distance from life,” “cryptic chill,” etc., by those who, accustomed to verse which prepares its poetic moments not merely by gratuitous explanation but also by exciting a generous wealth of extra-poetic emotion, moral or sensual, simply cannot assimilate the unadulterate ecstasy of song. — Yet the poet, working a rarer life out of what we choose to call “life,” cannot remain on our fatigued level of intelligence or sensitivity. Transposition is the prime necessity of his art. All that his people have a right to demand of him is that he respect their language : not that he adopt their diurnal or journalistic defilement of it. He will, on the one hand, reach backward to its historic genius, on the other forward, to new and natural developments. 



Olives Devilled Almonds

Devilled Angels on Horseback

Cup of Consomme

Baked Long Reef Schnapper

Squab Pigeon Casserole Villageoise

Capsicums Eggplant

Spatchcock Chicken and Salad

Asparagus Melted Butter

Gateau Saint Honore aux Fraise

Rockmelon Souffle Parfait Armour

Corbeille de Petit Four



Rosmarie Waldrop, "Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence"

Rosmarie Waldrop. Photo by Steve Evans.


Rosmarie Waldrop's book Shorter American Memory consists of prose poems collaged from documents collected in Henry Beston's American Memory, a book of the late 1930s evincing an Americanist zeal for early documents. Beston's historicism seemed a liberal effort to restore and include in the American story, as it was being retold during the Depression, a wide range of Native American as well as both obscure and classic “founding” or “first encounter” Euro-American writings. By appying various constraints to these documents, Waldrop rewrites Beston by “taking liberties” — an intentional pun on her part — with the gist of the anthology and its very length. In doing so, she (to quote her publishers at Paradigm Press) “unearths compelling clues into America's perception of its own past, developing a vision of America vital for its intelligence, wit & compassion.”

We at PoemTalk decided to take a close look at one of these prose poems, “Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence.” A performance of this poem, preceded by a short introduction, was recorded at Buffalo in 1992. The main work of that reading was to present many chapters from Key into the Language of America, a project related to that of Shorter American Memory in several ways we mention in our discussion. As a warm-up to Key, she read three of her writings-through Beston: ours on the Declaration, a second on Salem, and a third on “the American Character According to [George] Santayana.”  Here is a link to Waldrop's PennSound page, where these and many other recordings are linked.

Al felt especially pleased to be joined on this occasion by Jessica Lowenthal (the poet, Director of the Writers House, and former student of Waldrop at Brown), Julia Bloch (co-editor of Jacket2), and Johanna Drucker, who was visiting us from Los Angeles that day for a talk on materiality and aesthetics, which turned out, unsurprisingly, to be stunningly suggestive and exciting.

This episode of PoemTalk was, we think, masterfully edited and sound-adjusted by our long-time editor, Steve McLaughlin. Thanks to the digitorial work of Danny Snelson, Shorter American Memory has been made available in its entirety as a PDF downloadable from Ubu Editions.

The Times City Room has a blog and I've been going back through it.  The January 2, 2009, entry was a piece about the donation of the books and papers of the famed bookstore, the Gotham Book Mart, to the special collections department of Van Pelt Library here at the University of Pennsylvania. Actually, a donor paid the bookstore a sum for its contents, whereupon the donor anonymously donated them to Penn. Penn had announced this major acquisition back in mid-December of 2008, but a few weeks later the City Room blog took a broader look at this once-important literary watering hole and the context of its demise. And they ran a great photo of some denizens, including writers who have long interested me, such as Horace Gregory and his wife Marya Zaturenska. Above is that photo. Here I want to point out two characters I find especially fascinating. One is José Garcia Villa, a Flipino-American poet who did some writing but also some editing in the modernist milieu. Some time ago I had something to say about his experiment with poems in which all words were separated by commas; see "why,can't,traditional,meter,be,an,effect,too?" Garcia Villa is the slight dark-haired fellow standing under the man on the ladder (who happens to be W. H. Auden). Another favorite personage is the fellow sitting cross-legged on the floor: Charles Henri Ford, a novelist, poet, editor, photographer, collage artist and driving force behind the surrealist magazine View. He was born in Mississippi and I'm guessing he picked up the faux-ish handle "Henri" in Paris. He had escaped to France pretty early, and ran his first periodical there, titled Blues and subtitled "A Bisexual Bimonthly." Returned to New York in 1934 and lived there with his long-time partner, the quasi-exiled neo-romantic painter Pavel Tchelitchew. My favorite Ford story: he typed Djuna Barnes' novel Nightwood for her, while visiting Morocco in 1932 at the suggestion of Paul Bowles.

'Montage of a Dream Deferred'

Beinecke Library, James Weldon Johnson Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature

i have questions. what do you mean by epic. the only “epic” i teach and enjoy teaching is the epic of gilgamesh. i’m not sure what definition you are using for epic. but in my immediate literary heritage and influences, the book length poetry selection that has deeply influenced my own writing and appreciation for literature is langston hughes’ montage of a dream deferred. there is nothing else in what might be considered the epic category that i relate to with any enthusiasm.


Drawing on African American popular music “jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie and be-bop” (Collected 387) Montage of a Dream Deferred is made up of eighty-seven parts and shows Hughes’s ultimate conception of the poem as epic and as a book-length work. In the epigraph to Montage, Hughes writes, “this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the matter of the jam session” (Collected 387).

More than half of the Langston Hughes poems in the second edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2004) are short lyrics from the 1920s — those poems for which Hughes is most well known such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921) and “Danse Africaine” (1922). The works of Hughes first published in the 1950s that are included in this Norton anthology (“Juke Box Love Song,” “Dream Boogie,” “Harlem,” and “Motto”) that appear to be short lyrics as well are all actually part of Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951). Yet there is no indication of that, leading readers to believe that Hughes’s poetics had not shifted in thirty years.

Importantly, Hughes’s use of the epic genre in the late 1940s and early 1950s[i] signals that his concern with African American collectivity began to require a longer form. This formal shift also signals his move toward Afro-Modernist experiment. Rampersad notes that Hughes now believed that “the crucial medium of the twentieth century was probably the montage (the composite, swiftly changing picture) or the collage (the inspired arrangement of still fragments)” (Life Vol. II 151), which Hughes found particularly important as he “sought to catch in verse the variety of Harlem life” (Life Vol. II 151-52). During this period Hughes embraces modernist forms while confronting the forces that stall African Americans’ achievement of modernity.

[i] Hughes announced the completion of the book in a letter to Arna Bontemps dated September 14, 1948 (Rampersad, Life Vol. II 151).


New Orleans poet Kalamu ya Salaam's Web site is:

                                              song long                                            ago a tale was

told with no                                                begin or end where

                        s the port and what

                                                            my part come

(from Zong!, M. NourbeSe Philip)

In that tenuous suspension between what is about to be silent and what is about to be spoken M. NourbeSe Philip intonates, makes utterances, working in and out of this impossible suspension: “…only if language bears witness to something to which it is impossible to bear witness, can a speaking being experience something like a necessity to speak.” (G. Agamben)

The song that is Zong! cannot be written about or described; it must be experienced. Because it sings for those who cannot speak, but must speak. Because Philip wades, swims, dives into the language of a law document and turns it oceanic, turbulent, makes the rock of law into the aquifer of moan.

“But who exactly possesses [language]? Ad whom does it possess? Is language in possession, ever a possessing or possessed possession? Possessed or possessing in exclusive possession, like a piece of personal property?” (Jacques Derrida)

In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that 150 African slaves be thrown overboard, murdered by drowning, so that the ship’s owners could collect money on their insurance. In writing Zong!, Philip was entirely dependent on the language of the two-page document Gregson vs. Gilbert, the only public legal document related to this slaughter.

“I have always suspected the law, as well as language, of being mad, of being, at any rate, the unique place and the first condition of madness.” (J. Derrida)

The song that is           cannot be writ               or     scribed  it must

experience         cause     ing                  who cannot s  ea , but must s  ea  .

  e  au           lip   ade                     s in     the langu    e of  law

                                    lent        s  h    ock of law   to        aqu              a  .

Philip grains the seeds of English, and in so doing changes it. And what is now her English, both silent and voiced, changes us. If we stop here, how will we inhabit this silence? (      ) Will we become uncomfortable? (      ) Will we finally be able to really hear the many Englishes with which we utter? (       ) On the eve of murderous drownings can we decolonize our English? (       )  In Zong!, Philip collides memory, history and law, troubles the properties of document to give voice to voices, render subjectivities to those who had been made into property. In that tenuous suspension between what is about to be silent and what is about to be spoken, Philip waters, sings, tunes, dins, sobs, sows and pauses. We pause with her in this fracture and ligature political.

       song th    is                        b     itten                       rib

   peri                      s                      h                    not

                                                          into                              law

      s        e                 e          k                    f l      int                     of moan


M. NourbeSe Philip is a poet, writer and lawyer, born in Tobago, now living in Toronto. She is the author of several collections of essays, prose, drama and poetry including She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, Harriet’s Daughter and Zong!, a work where memory, history, and law collide and metamorphose into the poetics of the fragment.