Commentaries - September 2012

[It was with Heriberto Yépez, first in Ojo del Testimonio (2008) and now, in the process of coediting Eye of Witness: A Jerome Rothenberg Reader, that I found myself digging into earlier work to come to terms with the idea of witnessing as a basis and prod for my own poetics. With that in mind I have come to a slow understanding of how that idea, still in process, has been central both to my poetics and to that of various others, known and unknown to me. The following are some short excerpts from Eye of Witness, but the body of my work in different genres seems permeated by the concept, and I find myself more willing than ever to stand behind it. While I know that others would come at it quite differently, I read it now as a common thread for all we hope to know. That “all,” I wrote some years ago, includes the world, the present, as it comes and goes. I am a witness to it like everyone else, and all the experiments for me … are steps toward the recovery/discovery of a language for that witnessing. It can never be more clear than that, nor should it. (J.R.)]

From Prologomena to a Poetics, for Michael McClure


Our fingers fail us.
Then tear them off! the poet cries
not for the first time.
The dead are too often seen filling our streets,
who hasn't seen them?
A tremor across the lower body,
always the image of a horse's head
& sandflies.
A woman's breast & honey.
She in whose mouth the murderers stuffed gravel
who will no longer speak.
The poet is the only witness to that death,
writes every line
as though the only witness.

From “The Sibila Interview: The Poem as an Act of Witness”

Charles Bernstein. Many of the poems in A Book of Witness, your new book from New Directions, are centered on the possibilities of the "I", and by extension, personal expression. Yet much of your work, as editor, poet and translator, has worked to decenter conventionally self-expressive verse. Can you talk about the tension between expression and construction in your work?

That was certainly one of the driving ideas in A Book of Witness, something that I had had in mind before but on which I had never acted so deliberately. The question of self-expression had come to dominate many of the conventional approaches to poetry, to make poetry almost exclusively an arena for the lyric, first-person voice. Like most of us, I came out of that mind-set, and like many of us, I resisted it. My idea for poetry was that, even where we worked in shorter forms, the range of voice accessible to us, like the range of subject or vocabulary, should be unlimited. At the same time I was fascinated by certain works – largely but not exclusively ethnopoetic – in which the first person (“I” and “me”) was used in ways that went far beyond the personal. I gave a number of examples in Technicians of the Sacred and the other anthologies, but the one that I took as template came from the María Sabina veladas – wall-to-wall first person but every utterance attributed to a mythic other voice:

            I am a little launch woman, says
            I am a little shooting star woman, says
            I am the Morning Star woman, says
            I am the First Star woman, says
            I am a woman who goes through the water, says
            I am a woman who goes through the ocean, says
            I am the great Woman of the Flowing Water, says
            I am the sacred Woman of the Flowing Water, says

But even before I knew about María Sabina, I was using the first person in that way – maybe derived from African praise-poems, maybe on my own:

            I am the man who held the keys.
            I asked you to forgive me.
            I was the first to be insistent and the last to leave.

            I vomited.
            I didn’t come there often.
            I was eager and alive.

            I was not the least among them.
            Once I was.
            Once I remember being in a poor position.

            I applied for membership.
            I was sad.
            Then I thought no longer to go on living.

            I turned from you and offered you my keys.
            You turned beside me and offered your position.
            I had turned against them.

All of that, as you point out, is a compositional as well as an expressive matter, and I’m not sure if expression or self-expression is anything but misleading when we talk about it. Looking back now, I see that in that last poem I was using the “I” pronoun to set up a series of repetitions, more for the sake of contradiction than agreement. I could switch of course to third person (“he” or “she” or “they”) with similar results, but the power of the “I” and a certain fluctuation in its use – between fact and fiction – had a different meaning. It was clear that language allowed the “I” to testify, but to what was it testifying and who in any instance was the person, the “I,” who was speaking? I began to feel, in that way, that an unfettered use of “I” wouldn’t so much lock in identity as put it into question.

Regarding composition or construction, there was another work which helped me to launch A Book of Witness and to which it has some necessary reference. I had been reading a little book by Jenny Holzer – Laments – and finding in it a still more complicated weaving of “I” utterances. For Holzer these seemed to function as narratives that formed a kind of postmodern version of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology – twelve individuated “voices of the dead” she called them, but I read each one instead as a series of overlapping voices and identities. I also had a number of other things in mind – compositionally, I mean, as well as intellectually: that the utterances would be separate from each other as I wrote them and would form a unity only later, or however it fell out; that they would include brief “I” utterances from other poets, most of whom I would identify in the margins; and that they would constitute a long series (a hundred poems in total) where the reiteration of the form affected and changed the reading of the individual poems.

Cecilia Vicuña. In the pre-face to the New Selected Poems 1970-1985, you speak of yourself as a witness, as I understand it not just to the world, but to your own process, which leads us to the old question of "el desdoblaje", being in and out of yourself at the same time while performing. Would you care to explore this further?

This is a different question from Charles’s, although it touches on similar ground and on the word “witness,” which is, I suppose, central to my idea of what the aim of my poetry may be. In the pre-face you mention, the declaration about witnessing goes as follows: “I am a witness like everyone else to [the world, the present, as it comes and goes], and all the experiments [the poems] for me … are steps toward the recovery/discovery of a language for that witnessing.” At the same time I find myself shying away from such a claim, because it seems to me I’ve seen and felt so little. I keep coming back to it, however, with a sense that a little may be enough and that I can use the means at my disposal to be a conduit for others – at its most intense for others who have seen and felt a lot.

In Khurbn, the cycle of poems I wrote about the holocaust, I opened myself to other voices, witnesses to those events, by composing, constructing, texts – my own words interlaced (collaged) with theirs. A Book of Witness is much more constructed, much less constrained by its thematic. Here I take the first person (“I”) as voice of witness and follow wherever it leads me, while at the same time I confront the problematics of witnessing and the possible lie of speaking in the first person – in the witness’s voice. I am aware here too of the degradation of the first person, both by poets close to me who disparage it and by others who restrict it to a narrow, “confessional” perspective. In the Postface to A Book of Witness, I speak of it as “the instrument – in language – for all acts of witnessing, the key with which we open up to voices other than our own.”

When it comes to performance, however, I appear as who I am – as the presenter of my own works or of works like Hugo Ball’s Karawane or Schwitters’ London Onion that I’ve appropriated for myself. I’m not aware of acting a role other than myself; that is to say, I don’t have to get into character to perform, as an actor would, but have only to work myself into the performance as a musician might. In doing that I’m aware as well that “myself” in the act of performance feels different for me than “myself” does otherwise. I like your word desdoblaje, which I take as a splitting apart or a breaking in two, and I think that what I’ve said just now may be my version of it.

Or put more simply: I hear myself speak and in that moment of performance I am both subject and object: the one who listens and the one who speaks.

From A Book of Witness: “i-Songs Exist”

i-songs exist, (I. Christensen)
& I have sought them,
playing an empty hand.
i is your mother,
is a good day
& also not.
i equals nothing
in the game of numbers
where it is also ten
& jew.
i is a womb
a belly
something stolen
heart & hand.
i eats
& will be eaten.
i is a habitation.
i is go & good.
i is a power.
i is to God
a question.
i is willing.
i is i-am
but stands confused.
i is a name for ice.
i is an end.

Postscript to A Book of Witness

A Book of Witness was my passage from one century – one millennium – to another. The first fifty poems were written in 1999, the second fifty in the two years that followed. When I came into the street that first day in the year 2000, it was one of those bright California mornings, & I was struck, very forcefully, by the curious name of the year & by a feeling that I was entering another world. While I didn’t put much stock in that kind of era-shifting, my mind that morning still held an image from something I had seen on television the night before – a series of movie clips showing earlier twentieth-century views of what the coming century would be like. Millennium was a word I had been mulling over in that closing decade, most notably in the assemblage Poems for the Millennium that Pierre Joris & I put together & published in the later 1990s. The word itself, we knew, was slippery – associated as it was with a sense of apocalypse & destruction that often belied our rosier interpretations.

Witness was another word we held in common. In its twentieth-century usage it had a meaning – pathetic but real – that spoke to the horrors, great & small, that marked that time & that persist today. I had come to think of poetry, not always but at its most revealing, as an act of witnessing, even of prophecy – by the poet directly or with the poet as a conduit for others. I had also been struck by how crucial to all of that the voice was; I mean the voice in the grammatical sense, the “first person” centered in the pronoun “I.” I was aware, even so, of how that first person voice had either been debased or more frequently despised by many poets – often (where despised) by poets close to me. The intention, understandably enough, was to free the poem from its lyric shackles – “the lyrical interference of the individual as ego,” as Olson called it.

The loss of such expression, however, would be immense, & its elimination futile. For there are a number of ways in which that voice – first person – has been one of our great resources in poetry, something that turns up everywhere in our deepest past & present. I mean here a first person that isn’t restricted to the usual “confessional” attitude but is the instrument – in language – for all acts of witnessing, the key with which we open up to voices other than our own. I am thinking here of someone like the Mazatec shamaness María Sabina (& her echo in the work of our own Anne Waldman), who throws up a barrage of “I” assertions, when it’s really the voices of the gods, the “saint children” of her pantheon, whom she feels speaking through her.

There is in all of this a question of inventing & reinventing identity, of experimenting with the ways in which we can speak or write as “I.” In the course of putting that identity into question, I have brought in statements now & again by other poets – very lightly sometimes but as a further way of playing down the merely ego side of “I.” And I let the voices that I draw in shift & move around. I want to do that, to keep it in suspense. “I am I because my little dog knows me,” Gertrude Stein wrote in a poem she called “Identity.” I have written a hundred of these poems now – a century of poems -- & I hope that they’re both of this time & still connected to the oldest ways in which the poem makes itself.

Pastoral Landscape, Asher Brown Durand, 1861
Pastoral Landscape, Asher Brown Durand, 1861

I’ve been reading and pondering Raymond Williams’ book, The City and the Country, written in 1975, but fresh as a daisy today. What first struck me was his search for the original Arcadia, the source of the pastoral—the original harmony of human with nature that inspired all the pastoral poems to come thereafter. Of course, you say, the Garden of Eden! But Williams goes beyond that into the Roman and Greek roots of the form:

For if we look back into literature for significant writing about country life, we are taken many centuries beyond Virgil to the Works and Days of Hesiod, to the ninth century before Christ.

So, there he finds an “epic of husbandry”—the practice of agriculture—and the “long influence of this myth of the Golden Age.” But, here—and this is what struck me—“but for Hesoid, at the beginning of country literature, it is already far in the past.”

So back and back, and back. Each pastoral refers to an earlier age, and when Williams arrives at the pastorals of that time, they refer to an age even before that. The pastoral is a hall of mirrors, each poem reflecting another before that, and it’s difficult to determine any reality of a time when shepherds lived peacefully with their flocks, when all forests were original, when all plants were native to the place that they grew, and where humanity hadn’t, in some sense, exploited, enslaved, polluted, altered, domesticated, ate, drank, defecated on something else somehow somewhere.

A few days ago, I returned to New York City from a vacation in Woodstock, New York. As ever, re-entering the city was jarring, upsetting, exhilarating, and yet. Woodstock and most areas within several hours distance from the city are now in a sense minor variations on inhabited space—despite stars, trees, insects, outdoor water one can swim in without worrying about immediate bubonic plague or chemical burns, human life is still omnipresent. An airplane crossed the apex of the sky at the same hour each day. A pigeon sat on top of a telephone pole—its ancestors brought over as food on European ships. A pile of Cheetos was spilled on the ground next to a creek. The trees in my friend’s backyard are secondary plantings, like most of the trees in the northeast, replanted by humans or repopulating, after original forest was timbered for fuel, ship masts, whatever. I think often of the term “appalling blankness,” because so often, out in “nature,” what lies underneath an apparently lush landscape is actually a tragedy of extinct and endangered plants that are being replaced/have been replaced by a spreading corporation of green body-snatchers.

Even so, re-entering the city—the City, the CITY—is a shock. The illusion of nature, of wilderness, is ripped away. Leaving—nature? The question over and over is how humans fit into it all, and moreover, for me, for this blog, how poetry fits into that, or how “it” fits into poetry. Raymond Williams on the city: “…I find I do not say ‘There is your city, your great bourgeois monument, your towering structure of this still precarious civilisation’ or I do not only say that; I say also ‘This is what men have built, so often magnificently, and is not everything then possible?’” When I returned to the city after a long trip across the country into what was, for a city kid, terrifying space and wildness, the city looked like another kind of geological monument. But Ed Roberson in City Eclogue shows how the city is also made of human lives and how the pastoral form can evolve and is evolving to accommodate our overwhelming human presence within “ecology.”

Gregory Djanikian, "Armenian Pastoral, 1915"


When Gregory Djanikian’s book, So I Will Till the Ground, was published in 2007, it was celebrated at the Kelly Writers House. (Later a Writers House podcast was released to give a sense of the event.) Al Filreis gave an introduction (MP3) as did one of Djanikian’s students, Sam Donsky (MP3). Djanikian read the hilarious “Immigrant Picnic” (MP3), a poem from the part of the book dealing with the life of the poet's family after the genocide left many of his forebears dead and dispersed the rest to places like Alexandria, Egypt, where our poet was born. Most of the book, indeed, deals with the effects many decades later of the Armenian genocide (or “Meds Yeghern,” the great calamity). But the first poems in So I Will Till attempt to represent mass killing. Among them is a poem Djanikian also read that night in 2007: “Armenian Pastoral” (MP3), the poem we discuss in this episode of PoemTalk. It is more focused on the linguistic capacities of traumatic memory than any other poem in a book that is nonetheless full of consciousness about the relationship between genocide and naming.

At left, from left to right: Peter Balakian, John Timpane, Jamie-Lee Josselyn. To discuss this poem, and more generally the problems attending the making of verse “about” genocide, PoemTalk brought together Jamie-Lee Josselyn, who has helped teach a course on representations of the holocaust for many years; John Timpane, poet and editor of the commentary page at the Philadelphia Inquirer; and Peter Balakian. Balakian’s own story of a poet's life grappling with the history and effects (and denials by others) of the Armenian genocide he has told in numerous books — in poetry and prose. 

We took advantage of Peter's trip to Philadephia (from Hamilton, New York, where he teaches at Colgate University), and organized a poetry reading that took place just a few hours after we recorded this episode of our podcast. The entire audio recording (MP3) is available at the Kelly Writers House site (here). This episode of PoemTalk was convened and produced by Al Filreis, as always, and edited, as always, by Steve McLaughlin.

A week before the 10-week ModPo course begins (current enrollment, as of this moment: 28,000 people worldwide) several thousand of those in the course are already talking in a Facebook group and on Twitter. We were discussing a poem by Emily Dickinson. People began saying things about the poem that in all my years of reading and teaching it I hadn't thought of. Then I posted this, above (apologies for the enthusiasm).

To enroll in Modern & Contemporary American Poetry - free, online, hosted by the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania through Coursera: enroll here.

Sarah Dowling, Michelle Taransky, and Central California.
Sarah Dowling, Michelle Taransky, and Central California.

Poets Sarah Dowling (until recently of Philadelphia; now of Seattle; originally of Regina, Saskatchewan) and Michelle Taransky (of Philadelphia; originally of Camden, New Jersey) used Google Hangout to visit my William Carlos Williams class last month to talk about their relationship to WCW, modernism, and Spring and All. I invited them to read a few poems, answer questions about them, and then enter the dialogue we’ve been having in our class around identity and American poetry.

Spring and All was a good moment at which to invite some contemporary poets to join us: as Ron Silliman has written, when it was released in 1971 after being out of print for nearly fifty years, Williams’s long poem became known as “the most radical critical text of the twentieth century.” Barrett Watten in The Constructivist Moment locates in Williams’s hybridic, contractive Spring and All an attention to “the gaps and fissures that make transparent communication both impossible and deeply desirable,” a form of poetic attention that took hold for poets writing in the 1970s and remains to this day. And Alice Notley, in her 1980 lecture “Doctor Williams’ Heiresses,” finds in Spring and All a wealth of formal possibilities, even as Williams’s engagement with gender there and elsewhere (especially Asphodel) remain “enraging.” This engagement is what animated a 2008 presentation at the Kelly Writer’s House devoted to William Carlos Williams and the Women (which is available online). Dowling and Taransky, along with Pattie McCarthy and Jena Osman, considered the impact of Williams on his 125th birthday — I don’t think Dowling was alone when she said, “I like Williams, but so often he makes me uncomfortable.”

Discomfort has become a recurring theme in the single-author course this quarter, so I asked our two poets to reflect on what they get and what they don’t from this particular poetic predecessor. Dowling and Taransky each read some poems to the class — Dowling from her 2009 collection Security Posture and from her new work, and Taransky from her 2009 collection Barn Burned, Then and from her forthcoming Sorry Was in the Woods — and then took questions from the class. We talked about uses of direct imagery, page space, and the line break, all hallmarks of Williams’s form. These two poets also share an engagement with popular culture, the vernacular or what Williams called ‘idiom’ of their own day. What I remember most is the remark both poets shared that while Williams often writes things that get him into trouble, he also demonstrates an apparent pride in having said the unsayable, and that this may be one of his most enduring qualities.

Inviting contemporary writers into the classroom to share their work and reflect on the curriculum is something I took for granted when working on an urban campus; it became simply part of the texture of ongoing creative and critical interaction. It’s much different when you’re about 130 miles away from the nearest major literary center, and many students have never met a published writer in person. As we all hovered around the tiny videocamera on my laptop, I wondered about the similarities and differences between Williams’s America and our own.