Commentaries - December 2011
from Jacket #31 (October 2006)
I want to say a few simple things about reading, and hope that my illustrations will justify the time taken, even if the purpose to which they are put is dull. Is this an apology? I mean it to be a model of reading. For reading too is a way of taking time, one in which the ostensible aim — meaning — is often of less interest than the compensatory pleasures offered up along the way.
This dynamic — between the expectation of meaning and the sensual enjoyment of what makes meaning possible — is one manifestation of a difference we often feel between reading analytically and reading for pleasure, a difference that often collapses when we start to look closely at its constituent parts. There is, for instance, a pleasure to be had in analysis, and, likewise, there are analyses to be made in the midst of pleasure. Who can say where the emphasis should fall when push comes to shove in the mind, when confronted with lines like these by Robert Creeley:
The men in my life were
three in number, a
father, uncle, grand-
father — and with that
father an interchangeable
other — the Man — whom
to score with, scream at.
The wind rises in a
fucking, endless volume.
Three stanzas of three lines each organize the poet’s thoughts about three men in his life, a symmetry of form and content that seems at odds with the quickness, and, indeed, colloquial imprecision at the poem’s center. Who is the father interchangeable with “the Man”? The caesura in “grand- // father” (which prettily, but perhaps distractingly, makes for three lines in a row beginning “father”) draws attention to a maddening, unnecessary ambiguity. If the speaker — Creeley — means to put his stress on “that” in line four and so assert that his grandfather became for him an embodiment of abstract male authority (and this makes sense given the facts of Creeley’s childhood), why not say “and with that / last” and make the matter perfectly clear? If he means instead to put the stress on “father” in line five and so say his actual father — who died when Creeley was four — became, because absent, “this vastly generalized figure” (as the poet himself puts it in a conversation with Tom Clark), why not revise the poem in any number of possible ways and so remove the problem of interpretation? I find a similar ambiguity in the poem’s conclusion, although there the ambiguity offers more productive directions for analysis. On the one hand, the italicized “wind” of line eight provides a poetic figure for the likewise italicized “Man” in line six. On the other hand, the wind’s ever-rising volume provides a poetic analogue for the speaker’s screaming anger in line seven. The ambiguity — or better, overlapping of meanings — is productive because it allows a reader to argue (as I now will) that the speaker in his agon has become, like his father or grandfather before him, an “interchangeable / other” of “the Man.” As it happens, these final two lines are the part of the poem in which I take the most pleasure, although not because of what they say — and not because of their conventionally poetic technique. I just like saying “fucking, endless volume”: I like the pleasing dissonance this angry line creates with the painstaking articulation of the first four lines and I also like the way it releases the speaker from the imprecision of lines five, six, and seven. For without knowing exactly what Creeley is saying, I can take pleasure in the force and feeling of his utterance — which is how one tends to understand the wind. Reading for pleasure, I take account of understanding’s lapses, but do not necessarily make an effort to correct them.
I have spoken here of analysis and pleasure, but, as I think my reading of “The men in my life” shows, the two are not essentially divergent save in one important respect: where analysis tends toward a total understanding, pleasure remains content with its partiality. My use of Robert Creeley to articulate this latter stance — partiality — is not accidental. If the former — total understanding — is the province of hermeneutics, a practice of reading in which the part draws interest only insofar as it illuminates the whole, then a de-emphasis of hermeneutics will necessarily be concerned with pieces. Robert Creeley’s Pieces (1969) is explicit in this concern, which Creeley framed as a matter of process rather than product, that is, of “scribbling, of writing for the immediacy of the pleasure and without having to pay attention to some final code of significance.” The words I am citing here come from the postscript to Contexts of Poetry, a 1968 pamphlet based on Creeley’s presentation at the Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963. What Creeley meant by context in this pamphlet would be covered today by the phrase scene of writing: the places, tools, and circumstances that make literature possible literally — Creeley feeling at the time that his writing had become unduly qualified by habits of composition, namely, his dependence on a room, typewriter, and freedom from interruption. Breaking away from this dependence, he sought to produce a kind of poem unconstrained by “code[s] of significance,” trying by design “to avoid any immediate decision as to whether or not the effects of such writing were ‘good.’” The first poems so written appear in Words (1967), acts of attention trivial as statements but meaningful — I should perhaps say pleasurable — as composition. The best known of these is “A Piece,” which reads in its entirety:
— a verbal gesture rearticulated for the page, and something of a manifesto since it substitutes for song (Creeley’s own ideal of poetry in his earlier work) the words a bandleader might use to introduce the next number. The poem was, in effect, a new beginning, one that took the needs of composition as its starting point rather than working backwards to a theory of composition from a pre-established conception of the object. Allowing the work to take shape piece by piece, in the manner of “a day book” (the title of a subsequent collection, the one in which “The men in my life” appears), Creeley’s “pieces” freed the author — and thus, presumably, his readers — from determining how the pieces might or should fit together.
From this synopsis one might conclude that Creeley had abandoned interest in wholes altogether, and this would be true if by whole one meant the hermeneutic ideal of a unified structure in which each part contributes to the total meaning. But even as he began composing Pieces, Creeley held to a definition of whole substantially different, albeit analogous in structure. Thus, in 1966, he wrote, “Poems are a complex,… a structure of sounds and rhythms which cohere to inform the reader (whether he listen aloud or in silence) with a recognition of their order,” and quoted Pound to say, “Prosody is the articulation of the total sound of a poem.” The whole for Creeley was a proposition of form, not meaning. It sustained a relationship between parts that was much the same as that assumed, for example, by the New Critics, but the nature of this relationship was not to be deduced by explication. This remains true in Pieces, where sound as such is no longer the object of the poem’s prosodic invention. In “The Rhythm,” the opening poem of Words, Creeley had already developed an enlarged sense of prosody, defining rhythm as that “which projects / from itself continuity / bending all to its force” — a definition that leads easily to a reading of Pieces as a “complex… of sounds and rhythms,” and thus as continuous with Words and the earlier For Love (1962). What is new is the diffidence regarding coherence — regarding the orderly relation of parts — and the embrace of meaning as a constituent aspect of the poem’s total structure. To be sure, some readers have wanted to claim a unity for the book — Russell Banks called it a “gestalt” and evoked the hermeneutic ideal when he wrote, “if the relations… between the parts could be shown, it might help to illuminate some of the less apparent aspects of the whole” — but Creeley himself aimed at incorporating all that a unity excludes. As he told Michael Andre in 1971, “I wanted something that could include, say, what people understandably might feel are instances of trivia; that is, I really respect Duncan’s sense that there is a place for everything in the poem in the same sense that Williams says — the total province of the poem is the world.” To make a place for everything in a poem, no matter how trivial, is to confer a dignity upon the part — or piece — independent of its capacity for yielding an understanding of the whole. Such an understanding may not even be possible anymore, since the whole now aims at encompassing the entire world. Pound’s “total sound” of the poem is a recognizable order. The ordered meanings of New Criticism are explicable. A poetry of “total province” is something different: knowable in pieces yet meaningful only in relation to what cannot be known, it has a prosody — a compositional structure — that perpetually articulates relations without a determining coherence.
But what does this compositional mandate mean for reading? More particularly, what does a theory of literature rooted in composition mean in practice for the work of interpretation? For, although Creeley’s “pieces” take shape on premises other than those embraced by hermeneutics, his formal experiments of the 1960s and after were concerned, paradoxically, with incorporating a broader range of possible statements. Cognition was intrinsic to the act: intrinsic to the poetry’s composition and intrinsic, presumably, to its reception as well. To be sure, the nature of that cognition differs from the total understanding idealized in “close reading,” but hermenia is never beside the point, as is the case, for example, in the process-oriented writings of Jackson Mac Low, or in such analogous attempts to incorporate “antipoetic” material as we find in the work of certain language poets. Creeley’s “pieces” are records of attention, even if only to the act of writing that produced them, and almost all are propositional in form, which means that the most abstract and seemingly meaningless among them are still proposed as occasions for understanding. Thus, the play of sounds in a poem like “Letter to General / Eisenhower” — which translates into Creeley’s postwar American vernacular a kind of writing he first learned from Louis Zukofsky, to whom the book Pieces was dedicated — never precludes us from attending to the meaning, never achieves or seeks to achieve what Zukofsky calls a condition of music:
Letter to General
Reading or hearing this poem, we can take pleasure in the sounds, accepting their permutations as a free association or babble, intuiting, perhaps, that the end result is a kind of putdown of presidents, generals, and authority figures as a type. Should we seek to confirm or disprove this intuition, or otherwise take an interest in the arrangement of statements, we might note that the poem is a dictation between generals, and that the free association or babble produces two notable puns: the double meaning of batter in “Better batter / bigger pancakes” and the varied shades of meaning of eat it (consume it, die, fuck off, you’re worthless) in “You Chief / Eat It.” Noting, however, that the poem is a “piece,” we could go further and read these lines as themselves part of an arrangement of statements, as part of a sequence or book that may or may not confirm, complicate, modify, or contradict our partial understanding. We could also read the poem as part of a life (General Mountbatten directed the invasion of Burma, where Creeley was stationed at the end of World War Two), or as part of a tradition — I have already mentioned the debt to Zukofsky, whose “Songs of Degrees” (“Hear, her / Clear / Mirror, / Care / His error,” etc.) Creeley first published in the Black Mountain Review. Such a range of possible approaches is hardly particular to Creeley, of course. What is particular is the absolute refusal to adjudicate between them theoretically. In the poetics of Pieces, each reading, no matter how partial, retains its validity within its own established parameters.
Creeley’s validation of partiality rests on three principles that emerge slowly in his work over a period of about fifteen years, 1963 to 1978. These principles are: First, the relationship between part and whole is not hierarchic. The part retains its dignity as an object of appreciation or study — and consequently retains its autonomy as an object — quite apart from any modification to pleasure or analysis that might occur when it is resituated in a larger frame. Second, the distinction between part and whole is always provisional. Because the part retains autonomy, it is, when the object of a writer’s or reader’s attention, as whole as any larger collection of parts in which it might be situated. The distinction between part and whole is precisely a function of the attention given. Third, the whole need not be a unity. Because it admits everything, the whole can, in its more complex manifestations, include parts that produce disunity. It can include discordant elements and be discordant as an element in a larger whole, although this discord will only be discoverable or verifiable by way of the act of interpretation it troubles. The interpretation of these discordant poems may not be satisfying in New Critical terms — I have already noted Creeley’s willingness to avoid deciding “whether or not the effects of such writing were ‘good’” — but the work involved in retrieving even a partial understanding is entirely in keeping with Creeley’s overall commitment to process. Moreover, because interpretation is never the sole form of response that work permits or invites, discord between forms of reading is as essential a possibility as discord between the parts read.
You are perhaps wondering at this point why I have taken the trouble to sketch so schematically — and, I fear, pedantically — a hypothetical reception history that, far from being unusual, is the state of affairs that inevitably obtains in response to a literary text generating any sort of notable history at all. Whatever the author’s intentions, whatever form of reading the author may seek to promote or describe, a literary text invariably inspires a diversity of critical approaches, not to mention the partial responses due to unequal interest in its various parts or aspects. What I find unusual — if not unique — in Creeley’s work is the utter lack of friction or disconnection between the empirical experience of reading it and the theory of reading implied in its poetics. This last point might easily be developed in detail, either by showing the kinds of friction and disconnection that occur when we read other poets (both those who compose in the hope of provoking new modes of reading and those who write for readers with pre-established skills), or by tracing out the publication and reception histories of particular works by Creeley. For the present, I want only to assert the odd but happy fact that intention and reception match when partiality is given such credence. I call the fact “odd” because one might expect — I know I did — the opposite: that legitimation of partiality would produce disagreement or disjunction. But this possibility for discord is precisely the ground that Creeley’s work establishes as common.
Central to any hermeneutic practice is the notion that understanding a part illuminates the whole. But what constitutes a whole? And what theory of literature must we accept to substantiate the claims of a piecemeal understanding? For the reasons I have given and others that our allotted time will not permit me to present, Robert Creeley’s work, especially after 1963, offers, I believe, a sustained inquiry into these problems. His experiments in organization (Pieces, A Day Book , and Hello ), his fascination with insubstantial but formally complete word groupings (in the books just mentioned as well as Thirty Things  and a number of other works scattered throughout his later collections), his redeployment of key words for the titles of individual poems and entire books (“Song,” “Here,” “Echo,” “Later,” “Place,” “There”), and his republication as freestanding works poems originally composed in collaboration with visual artists (His Idea [1973 and 1982], Life and Death [1993 and 1998], Drawn & Quartered [1999 and 2003]), all show, in their different ways, that the “reading in pieces” subsumed theoretically or by fiat to a totality of meanings in hermeneutics can become in a poem an act of attention significant in its own right, a condition of intelligibility surpassed by but not absorbed into more total forms of understanding. The “piece” for Creeley is not a fragment of the whole, but a whole with provisional status — a theory of literature rooted in composition. Creeley was hardly the first poet to seek such a theory (Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound are notable precedents), but he may be the first whose work supports an equally meaningful theory of reading.
This talk was prepared for a panel on reading organized by Lisa Samuels for the Modernist Studies Association annual meeting in Chicago, 2005, chaired by Jennifer Scappettone and including papers by Samuels and Nick LoLordo along with my own.
 I am using the word “pieces” in a generic sense to refer to Creeley’s poems as conceived by the poetics of the book Pieces, incorporating thereby work published in other collections as well (such as “A Piece,” published before, and “The men in my life,” published after).
 Denise Levertov caught this aim well when she wrote, “it’s a complete book, the way a notebook or diary has its own completeness, a relatedness of part to part that is not identical with the coherence of the deliberately arranged.”
Jorge Santiago Perednik, who was born in Buenos Aires in 1952, was the author of poetry, essays, and translations. He died this morning in Buenos Aires.
Perednik was a poet of transformations and intimacies, gestures and jests, epochal lyrics and lyric epics, lurid lines and luring stanzas. The sheer intelligence of his social critique brushes constantly against the shine of his poems' sounds and cuts.
His poetry collections include El Shock de los Lender (1986), El fin del no (1991), and El Gran Derrapador (2002), among others. His poems have appeared in English in The XUL Reader (1992) The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry (2009); and The Shock of the Lenders and Other Poems is forthcoming from Action Books. He has translated poets including Charles Olson and Jerome Rothenberg into Spanish. Perednik is Director of the Program of Advanced Studies in Poetry at the University of Buenos Aires. He founded XUL Magazine in 1980.
XUL and the The XUL Reader are on line here.
A one hour interview and reading, produced by Ernesto Livon-Grosman, is available here at PennSound.
Molly Weigel's translaiton of The Shock of the Lenders is forthcoming from Action Books in Spring. The XUL reader publication of the "Main Fragment" from the poem is here.
NOTE: I will update this page with more links and details, as possible.
American second wave modernist Greenberg was born in 1893 and died in 1917
The first publication of Samuel Greenberg's poetry was Poems from the Greenberg manuscripts: a selection from the work of Samuel B. Greenberg, ed. James Laughlin (New Directions, 1939). Laughlin carefully transcribed from Greenberg's notebooks the best – as he put it – of Greenberg's poems. He also including a holograph reproduction of "Conduct." Laughlin called Greenberg's work "pure poetry":"The poetry of Greenberg is not great poetry, and it is not even important minor poetry ... and yet ... poetry it is, pure poetry, to the extent equal to few other writers."
In a 2010 issue of Larry's Fagin's Sal Mimeo no. 9, there was a selection of poems by Greenberg. Fagin explains: "I had collected some of the Greenberg poems in the past, having run across the New Directions  annual, Spearhead, in an U.S. military library in Frankfurt in 1954. Laughlin kept the original spellings and forms. Like many, I was disappointed in the Holt edition and generally avoided it." Spearhead contains an almost exact republication of Poems from the Greenberg manuscripts, from nine years ealier. I include here the poems published by Fagin, following Laughlin's versions, that are not already on the web at the Greenberg site.
I have had to approximate the shape of "Ruins of Prince Qulachrim" for this HTML version. And I have redone "The Pale Impromptu" based on the manuscript, which is provided befow, thanks to Marvin Taylor at NYU's Fales Collection.
The key source for Greenberg's poems is Michael's Smith extradorianry site LOGOPOEIA; you can read the poem in a web browser or in pdf reading copies.
Thanks to Michael Carr for his work on the Samuel Greenberg and his advise on these postings.
Nurse brings me medicine! Medicine! Medicine?
For me? God, 20 years old!
Medicine!? I’ll leave it to thee!
The truth is a draught!
She left me. the tinkling glasses
lent me her distance!
The Hurried call I’ll disdain for ever!
She shook the pulse
Like Samson the vaults
I’m still proud! yes proud!
Though charity is aiding me!
This future painter
does not hinder
What is going on—or shall be!
Ruins of Prince Qulachrim
DRAMA PERSONA Synopsis
Qulachrim The Prince The night in a cave – Benfeld, Shay – Szatleo. Shay
Faston The Poet & Soothsayer sings at the calm night – Benfeld speak of the Ruins
Talven – a faithful winekeeper on the Hill. They talk on Taking Possession of it.
Hindo Valet Dalkurz Dalkurz and the Prince in comes Faston who speaks
Surleton – Lute & Strang Player of the Beauty of grace and pulsation – Kalbone’s
The dreamer – Kalbone Fantasie is placed before the princes desposal. Terfed
Terfed – The Thespian (acter) and Talven at the Ruins. They see the waste of Perfect
Pauly – Coach Driver Labor pon an admirale mount. The Shepard Surleton
Benfeld The Haunts of with his lute neath an ugly Bark of Foliage. Surelton
Shay The Ruined Castle meets Terfed and Talven. tells that some one duells at
Szatleo night in the lower cellars of the ruins. – Pauly and
dancers: inheriters – Officers the town maids of Sunday. Dalkurz is sent to
the castle. news of the reck by the tempestous Heavens a week ago – Prince arrives – He go mongst
the broken rock to seek for the lost safe – Build tents for night camping – the light in the cellar –
Kalbone Dreamts a Horrible scorching eterity. The Poet Faston begs them not to venture forth.
Perhaps bandits enfest the ruins – second days search. Dalkurz the Brave is sent to reconioter. The
loss of the papers of confiscation – Terfed meets Benfeld – the Shay overhears them talk – that the
prince is camping not far from her – the warning of play – The Haunt of the cellars, Surleton’s fright.
Qulachrim and his lovers – Inheriters to the prince – a great loss – Pauly Drives the Prince about the
town, – talven – Terfed – Dalkurz – Kalbone’s Scheme to trap the ghosts – The scare crow – Kalbone
ventures to entrap him with a net – Terfed acts well his scare crow part – Surleton well with his lute.
the capture of Shay and Szatleo – the Bonds and paper of the prince restored – departure – end –
The “East River’s” Charm
Is this the river “East,” I heard
Where the ferrys, tugs and sailboats stirred
And the reaching warves from the inner land
Out stretched, like the harmless receiving hand
And the silvery tinge, that sparkles aloud
Like brilliant white demons, which a tide has towed
From the rays of the morning Sun
Which it doth ceaselessly Shine upon
But look! at the depth of the dripling tide
That dripples, reripples Like locusts astride
As the Boat turns upon the silvery spread
It leaves strange – a shadow dead
And the very charms from the reflective river
And from the stacks of the flowting Boat
There seemeth the quality ne’er to dissever
Life the ruffles from the Mystified smoke
SBG, 1913 Nov. 25,
The Street Lamp and the Eyelid
Close near my eyelid,
The golden threads were damp,
That moved like a fairy cobweb
Beneath the orbly chant
Gradation was it woven,
At it ruse from the puzzle-box,
To the highest place was proven,
As the lid would shut and relax
Below and above
A godly stride
Like stalks in a fairy dream
While lightning in the sky did hide
That shimmering tearful gleam
I closed mine eyes, the struggling heart,
That held like the clouded sun
While my hands grew cold, a tear did part
From the soul that glanced thereon.
Where sweepest thou, this earth Jehovah!
Like a windmill turnest thou a mortal’s schemes—
And the winds that flure the renew a gust
That lies sunken in Thy Palm, it seems.
Thy Palm? a stricken creature I am
The truth I fain, would but a gurgle be
And all the truest brakers of space
Assume the Like, E’re dividedly.
O! that ever burning seasoned warmth
It seems like an opening—of they careful retuirns
And behind it hide this divide announce
A web of hues guard they turns
And Thy shadow that doth repose a nature
That giveth brightness to the Spirit, pure
Love! The only youthful stain
That shall ever rein
O what a cheat is love, love invisible
Which doth float and disappears like a puff,
And the earth a growth for an age,
Will at last drop like a star aloof.
My thought shall be as wide as this,
My love still wider seem
The eminence of this daily Charm
Shall clomb above—eternal Bliss.
The Pale Impromptu
Silver mourned gray. Slepted the greenlight
Pale neath coil of rock and clay
Stirred the tasted belt, such flower sighed tears
Kept lewd powers away - by
The Easthern lute
The forgotten pallete
Thus of eye. lived low beyond colours earned retreat
But dared not show - a vampires rath
Can you forget this wreap
Hidden winds perspired foul - as
a palmed rose
The well shade
and here, the ash tray was Blown
Blue turned white, gave the earth
a coating balzomized sooth
Though naked light shealds the trail of love
The fold metal granite doth move
In - Waves of skin
Shapes of tale
Therein I but tarry, as the yoke of Helium tinge
Unmatched, foriegn, alien to the shrine of beauties cringe
Leaness will but crave
Skulls of saints
His wooB? hath yet night its breath
Clover sank to iron heat, stole the
lilies of pale mat gold
The hearse in ghosts, where black
jet black - driven in Frail - By
pearls from tissue
There sat the minstrel, bent in leagues of Frozen charm
Though lightly, fettered, as perfect calm Thawing melancholy
tale of lamps
O soul! enlivened from dire perfume,
Thanks to the Fales collection of New York University, who has given me permission, I am able to post the holograph of this poem. Go to "view image" to see full size.
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