Commentaries - July 2012

How to write: The student's moment

I just spent a week in erica kaufman’s workshop at the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard, which brings together secondary and college teachers for workshops and conferences focused on how to use writing as central to how we generate and refine our ideas about literature and language (and all subjects; we had biology and music teachers in our section). In one session, we worked with three essays about writing, George Orwell’s “Why I Write,” Jamaica Kincaid’s “In History,” and William Carlos Williams’s “How to Write.” Orwell’s portrait of the writer is essentially as political activist; Kincaid’s is of the courage to rewrite history; Williams’s is of a double mind commanding the double function of the text. Williams appears less political than Orwell or Kincaid, until the end of his essay, where he launches an attack on the teaching of standard English in American schools.

What might be the relationship between this well-known critique Williams held (“Why bother with English when we have a language of our own?”) and how Williams depicts the writing process in this piece? That is, what Williams calls the “deepest mind” and the “fore-brain” of the writer, the latter being the thing that in his words “attacks” a piece of writing once it is set down, editing, criticizing, and making possible what Williams calls “modern verse structures.” Modernism becomes a wholly cognitive entity in this essay, it seems:

But once the writing is on the paper it becomes an object. It is no longer a fluid speaking through a symbolism of ritualistic forms but definite words on a piece of paper. It has now left the region of the formative past and come up to the present. […] [The writer] has written with his deepest mind, now the object is there and he is attacking it with his most recent mind, the fore-brain, the seat of memory and ratiocination, the so-called intelligence. […] 

This is the student’s moment. (37–38)

That the student is the bearer of the “fore-brain”: Williams suggests a pedagogy of modernist writing. Who is the teacher?

(Quotations from Williams, “How to Write,” from New Directions in Prose & Poetry 1936: A Retrospective Selection, edited by James Laughlin)

Three Compositions on Philosophy and Literature (1972)

A reading of Gertrude Stein’s 'The Making of Americans' through Ludwig Wittgenstein’s 'Philosophical Investigations'

Asylum’s Press Digital Edition
available for purchase as .epub, .mobi (for Kindle), and PDF for printing

 Forty years ago, during my last semesters of college, I wrote a senior thesis on Gertrude Stein’s Making of Americans, which I read in the context of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I had concentrated in philosophy at Harvard even though my interests were primarily literature and art (poetics and aesthetics). I didn’t know anyone who had read Stein but was surrounded by philosophers deeply engaged with Wittgenstein. Still, I saw two key issues that Stein addressed in her early work that related to the philosophical problems that echoed through Emerson Hall, where Stein herself had studied with William James.

Throughout The Making of Americans, Stein confronts the problem of what she calls “the real thing of disillusionment”: a sense of being a stranger, queer, to those around her; the sinking feeling that one is not, and perhaps cannot be, understood, that drives you to cry out in pain that you write for “yourself and strangers,” in Stein’s famous phrase. Stein’s formulations struck me as being connected to the problem of other minds, or skepticism, a virtual obsession of Stanley Cavell in those years. It seemed to me that Stein and Wittgenstein had crafted a related response to skepticism.

The related philosophical issue that Stein’s work addresses is the nature of meaning and reference in verbal language: how words refer to objects in the external world. Both Wittgenstein and Stein dramatize the breakdown of a one-to-one correspondence between word and object. They are both averse to the conception that words are akin to names or labels and that meaning is grounded in a verbal mapping of a fully constituted external world. What do words or phrases designate? This goes beyond the issue of private language, which has dogged the interpretation of Stein’s work. The problem of where the pain is when pain is expressed opens up for Wittgenstein and his interpreters (for me primarily Rogers Albritton and Cavell) a more general problem of the nature of reference, designation, and naming for such intangibles as (in Stein’s words) “thinking, believing, seeing, understanding.” I felt, still do, that this philosophical conundrum directly bears on the meaning and reference of not just words or phrases in poems but of poems themselves, which certainly mean, designate, and express, but do not necessarily refer to “things,” if things are assumed to be already existing and named objects. I am not satisfied with the argument I make about the nature of reference in the final sections of The Making of Americans and Tender Buttons, where Stein invented a compositional method that I call “wordness.” Still, despite the manifest shortcomings of this work, it locates some ongoing problems that remain to be addressed, both in terms of a full-scale reading of The Making of Americans and a more technically robust account of reference in works such as Tender Buttons.

Looking back, I am aware of how circumscribed my frame of reference was in 1971. I am content here to play straight man (third Stein) to Stein and Wittgenstein, those diaphanously queer, secular Jews born just fifteen years apart.

Three Compositions on Philosophy and Literature (1972)
available for purchase as .epub, .mobi (for Kindle), and PDF for printing

My thanks to the Archive for New Poetry at the University of California, San Diego, for making available the manuscript. Jeff Boruszak helped prepare the digital version.

Phong Bui in his studio

Phong Bui on Close Listening.

photos © 2012 Charles Bernstein

Gerald Bruns on Radical Coherency (Antin's essays) & Attack of the Difficult Poems

Alan Thomas, our University of Chicago editor
took this picture at the book launch, in Los Angeles,
for Antin's essay collection,
Marjoire Perloff's Unoriginal Genius
and my Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions.

just out:
Gerald Bruns reviews Radical Coherence and Attack of the Difficult Poems
 in Jacket2's review section.

David Antin at EPC | Marjorie Perloff at EPCAttack of the Difficult Poems at EPC.

A Gematria poem, as it comes to me, for George Quasha at 70 & myself at 80

Photo circa 1973

100 + 6 + 6 + 1 + 300 + 1 = 414 = 200 + 214 = 300 + 114

I came
& with him

watched the serpents
& the antelopes

so inflamed

the pit
divines them


our eyes
will bring them down

will multiply
their faces

& we will see
a light

a stone
for divination

we will bring
out of a rock

then we will take
a bone

the ends of which
like wings

or branches
blameless clear

we will scrape off
& swallow

vain like prophets
bare uncircumcised

in the imagination
only & will see

& multiply
like locusts

we will scatter
in the river

: & they saw
: & they shall see

That George Quasha has come to this point & I still ten years ahead of him is an unanticipated delight & one in need of celebration all around. It is also forty years since we joined together in constructing America a Prophecy (1973), which has now come into a rebirth & sits in front of me as I think back to our first meetings & the turbulence of working & playing together on such a multiphasic project. It was in the aftermath of that work that I came to realize that prophecy as we used it in the title was most remarkably a vision, not so much of the future, as of the present & the past – the present foremost, however soon it slips away from us. That present has stuck with us still, & however long it lasts, gives us a chance to expand what we know as mind & voice, toward what I think of now as an omnipoetics , a principle of poetry & life, that I first sensed & fought & questioned in his presence. The poem that gematria has now given me – from the letters of his name spelled out in written Yiddish – is also something that I may come to understand, if ever, not as it first emerges here but as I grapple with it in the days & years to come. The poetry, I mean to say, is in the questions, as the prophecy is also.

For which I want to thank him, as I hope to do again & then again.