Commentaries - October 2012

WCW stamp.
WCW stamp.

Mail received the other day from Joe Milutis, who Skyped into my William Carlos Williams class to talk about Paterson and the work he’s been doing on the impressively audio-rich and intertextual blog New Jersey as an Impossible Object. I’ll be writing more about Milutis’s visit here soon; until then, I’m enjoying the curiosity of the Williams postage stamp in the context of our ongoing conversation about canonization, transmission, the epistolary elements of Williams’s own work, and the fact of Williams being stamped by our current time signature.

Virgil & Dante in the Hell of Thieves (medieval).
Virgil & Dante in the Hell of Thieves (medieval).

Doxy oh! Thy Glaziers shine
As Glymmar by the Salomon,
No Gentry Mort hath prats like thine
No Cove e're wap'd with such a one.

White thy fambles, red thy gan,
And thy quarrons dainty is,
Couch a hogshead with me than,
In the Darkmans clip and kiss.

What though I no Togeman wear,
Nor Commission, Mish, or slate,
Store of strummel wee'l have here.
And i'th' Skipper lib in state.

Wapping thou I know dost love,
Else the Ruffin cly thee Mort,
From thy stampers then remove
Thy Drawers and let's prig in sport.

When the Lightmans up do's call
Margery Prater from her nest,
And her Cackling cheats with all
In a Boozing-Ken wee'l feast.

There if Lour we want I'l mill
A Gage or nip for thee a bung,
Rum booz thou shalt booz thy fill
And crash a Grunting cheat that's young.

Bing awast to Rome-vile then
O my dimber wapping Dell,
Wee'l heave a booth and dock agen
Then trining scape and all is well.

. . . . . . . .

Wench oh! Thy eyes shine
As fire by the Mass
No gentlewoman has thighs like thine
No fellow ever made love with such a one.

White thy hands, red thy mouth,
And thy body dainty is,
Lie down with me then,
In the night embrace and kiss.

What though I no cloak wear,
Nor shirt, chemise, or sheet,
Plenty of straw we'll have here.
And in the barn sleep in state.

Copulating thou I know dost love,
Else the Devil seize thee, wench,
From thy feet then remove
Thy stockings and let's ride in sport.

When the Sun rises and does call
The hen from her nest,
And her chickens withal
In a tippling-house we'll feast.

There if money we want I'll steal
A pot or nab for thee a purse,
Excellent liquor thou shalt drink thy fill
And crunch a pig that's young.

Go away to London then
O my pretty loving wench,
We'll rob a house and fuck again
Then hanging escape and all is well.


SOURCE: Richard Head, The Canting Academy, or Devils Cabinet Opened, 1673.

And very aptly may canting take his derivation from a cantando, from singing, because amongst these beggarly consorts that can play upon no better instruments, the language of canting is a kind of musicke. (Thomas Dekker, 1608)

 Canting, as a secretive, alternative language of professional thieves & beggars (but also: “gypsies, cheats, house-breakers, shop-lifters, foot-pads, highway-men, &c,” as one early gathering tells us), arises from actual underworlds – criminal & outcast/outsider – & functions also as a source language & incentive for many of the mysteries of what is elsewhere poetry. In its curious positioning – outside of literature as such – the canting song carries its own “vernacular obscurity,” as Daniel Tiffany has named it, akin to that “lyric obscurity” that marks not only many of our experimental modernisms & postmodernisms but a vast body of poetry “anywhere & everywhere.” It is this meeting of high & low worlds & words that strikes us here & colors so much of what the present gathering is trying to unearth & bring together. Writes Tiffany again: “The binding power of vernacular obscurity (upon both the initiate and the uninitiate) radiates from the solipsistic expression of the canting song – from its capacity to achieve its ends without making sense, to make its mark without losing its hermetic composure. That is to say, by demonstrating the paradox of lyric expression, the beggar’s chant invents a form of anonymity and a means of captivation founded on the principal of the open secret, a structure related to the petites perceptions of monadic substance, to the spectacle of lyric obscurity, and to the history of anonymous publication.” Or Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses, while appropriating stanza 2 of the canting song, above, & trying to outdo it: “Language no whit worse than his. Monkwords, marybeads, jabber on their girdles : roguewords, tough nuggets patter in their pockets. / Passing now.

A "deadfall" trap

I had inferred from pictures that the world was real and therefore paused, for who knows what will happen if we talk truth while climbing the stairs. In fact, I was afraid of following the picture to where it reaches right out into reality, laid against it like a ruler. I thought I would die if my name didn’t touch me, or only with its very end, leaving the inside open to so many feelers like chance rain pouring down from the clouds. You laughed and told everybody that I had mistaken the Tower of Babel for Noah in his Drunkenness.
— Rosmarie Waldrop*, “The Reproduction of Profiles”

I was thinking about why I wanted to write about still lifes, which perhaps don’t seem so directly a ecological and/or poetic topic, really. I guess it’s partly because I think so much about intentional landscapes and the still life is a miniature of that. Still lifes also are an intersection between art/nature, and in the physicality of their arthood (artiness?), actual places in which to think about where the creative soul can have something to say about how we exist in and of nature.

But they aren’t of course actual places. They are compositions, re-compositions, of actual things and places. Maybe here I should talk about landscape painting, as well. Maybe I should talk about the difference between landscape painting and earthworks. But I might be more interested in the moment by intentional landscapes and the concept of “the prospect.” And how the prospect is a precursor (but a simultaneous one) to a landscape painting. And the prospect could be seen as an early form of an earthwork.

Raymond Williams touches way too briefly on what “the prospect” is. (And in that eerie way the mind can built up what one’s read, I could have sworn he defined it much more clearly than he actually does.) Anyway, “the prospect” is what the landowners created after they acquired (such a polite word, acquire!) all the land “freed” up (for them) from enclosing the commons (see John Clare). Poor John Clare—he was violently shoved into pastoral mode by large economic and social forces, and perhaps even the first recorded case of “ecodepression.” Take his poem “To John Clare”— a pastoral poem written under intense displacement, the immediacy of nature writing forced into nostalgia to the extent that the adult self is divided from the child.

Well, honest John, how fare you now at home?
The spring is come, and birds are building nests;
The old cock-robin to the sty is come,
With olive feathers and its ruddy breast;
And the old cock, with wattles and red comb,
Struts with the hens, and seems to like some best,
Then crows, and looks about for little crumbs,
Swept out by little folks an hour ago;
The pigs sleep in the sty; the bookman comes—
The little boy lets home-close nesting go,
And pockets tops and taws, where daisies blow,
To look at the new number just laid down,
With lots of pictures, and good stories too,
And Jack the Giant-killer's high renown.

 So, after land was taken and peasants kicked off, landowners would then immediately set about recreating a pastoral ideal that they could view from their windows—the prospect. Really, it seems the same “evict and evoke” process happening in cities today, where longtime inhabitants are priced out of a neighborhood and the new inhabitants (and developers) immediately set about evoking a sanitized fantasy version of what it was like just before they arrived there. The butcher shop is replaced by a more “charming” butcher shop—and what’s the difference? The people are gone. It’s the same thing with the prospect. The views are of sculpted formal gardens, a sweeping grass lawn, an artificial or natural pond, and woods framing the sides, and in those woods, “poachers” (former inhabitants of the land) are being chased off via gun and threat of imprisonment.

This post is getting long, but the prospect and enclosure have much to do with the false binaries of city/country, people/nature, savage/civilization. These binaries work for those who want to acquire and exploit land. Much of the people who lived on and from the land fled to the cities. Therefore, cities are dens of sin and disconnection. But prospects are beautiful, the views are exquisite—where does art and poetry fit in? Are we poaching, or aiding and abetting? 

*Rosmarie Waldrop is reading tomorrow night with Marjorie Welish at the Poetry Project in NYC, by the way.

Roy Harvey Pearce, one of the founders of the UCSD’s Literature Department, died on August 27th 2012. Prior to coming to UCSD he taught at U.C. Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, and the Claremont Graduate School. He was teaching at Ohio State University in 1963 when, along with Andrew Wright, he was recruited by Herb York and Roger Revelle to move to UCSD and help develop the new university’s humanities program and become the Literature Department’s first chair. He brought with him a core number of faculty from Ohio State including Sigurd Burckhardt, and Leonard Newmark, and within a few years, Carlos Blanco, Robert Elliott, Bram Dijkstra, Jack Behar, and Bernhard Blume. He inaugurated the idea of a single department of Literature with a strong emphasis in comparative and interdisciplinary study. In the mid-1980s he worked to create a single Ph.D. in Literature (rather than separate degrees in individual national literatures). In 1966 Pearce was one of three UCSD faculty elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He served as Associate Dean and Dean of Graduate Studies at UCSD and was a member of the board of directors of several academic associations, including the National Council of Teachers of English, the Committee on International Exchange, the English Institute, and the Philological Association of the Pacific Coast.

Roy Pearce was a renowned scholar of American Literature whose many books, articles, editorial projects, and lectures contributed to the crossing of history, social sciences and literature that are a primary feature of American Studies today. He is the author of Savagism and Civilization (1953/1988), The Continuity of American Poetry (1962) (winner in that year of the of the Poetry Society of America Prize for criticism), Hawthorne Centenary Essays (1964), Historicism Once More (1969), and Gesta Humanorum: Studies in the Historicist Mode.  He is the editor of Colonial American Writing (1950) and a co-editor with J. Hillis Miller of The Act of the Mind: Essays on the Poetry of Wallace Stevens (1965). He served as the general editor of the standard edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work, published by Ohio State University Press. During the research on his foundational book, The Continuity of American Poetry, Professor Pearce began donating small press poetry materials to the University Library (now Geisel Library), which was to form the core of the Archive for New Poetry, one of the largest depositories of postwar poetry in English.

Pearce’s first book Savagism and Civilization was one of the earliest explorations of the ideological representation of Native Americans in Western thought and in American literature.  Its influence and lasting importance are registered in a Forward to the 1988 edition, by the distinguished scholar of Native American culture, Arnold Krupat:  “The reissue of Roy Harvey Pearce’s Savagism and Civilization comes at an especially propitious moment, one in which there is a renewed interest in cultural criticism attentive to discursive and ideological issues. Indeed, it is probably not too much to say that Pearce’s book has played some real part in keeping the possibility of such criticism alive in America.”

 A foundational book for scholars and students of poetry was his 1962 The Continuity of American Poetry which was the first attempt to see all of U.S. poetry as forming a coherent whole.  By seeing poets from Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor to William Carlos Williams and Robert Duncan as “antinomians,” resisting institutional and doctrinal definitions of self and society, Pearce linked innovations in poetry to ideas of resistance and innovation American history. Especially notable in his scholarship was Pearce’s archival use of small press publications, pamphlets and broadsides to stress the importance of ephemeral, non-institutional sites of poetic production.

 The centerpiece of Professor Pearce’s scholarly and pedagogical career is a commitment to the historical study of literature. In a key article of 1958, “Historicism Once More,” he criticizes the formalist New Criticism that reigned in universities at that time. Against a critical practice that detaches literature from its historical and cultural context, Pearce argues for “a kind of criticism which is, by definition, a form of historical understanding.” Pearce contests the idea of the text as an organic whole, held together by rhetorical and formal features, by pointing to its historical contexts: “The important point is that there is something still happening, and the organicity and wholeness which formalist criteria will help us remark are such because, as the poem first happened, it still happens. As it still happens, it brings, inseparably, the life of its culture with it. If we accept the form, we accept the life. If we accept the life, we accept the culture. This is historical understanding and historical knowledge.”  It is perhaps a kind of critical irony (or testimony to his critical acumen) that this article was published in The Kenyon Review, a bastion of New Critical thought.

 Roy Harvey Pearce is survived by his wife, Marie, and son, Robert.



Photo of John Ashbery wearing a jacket: by John Tranter (R77-8)
Photo of John Ashbery wearing a jacket: by John Tranter (R77-8)

I first came across John Ashbery’s work in the late 1960s. It had a great influence on my own poetry. As I say in my 2009 doctoral thesis, “the three poets who have most influenced [my] work [are] Arthur Rimbaud, the Australian hoax poet ‘Ern Malley’, and the contemporary US poet John Ashbery.”

The connections are interesting. As a young man, Ashbery lived in France for a decade, and he has recently translated Rimbaud’s “Illuminations”. Ern Malley: back in 2002 John wrote a few poems in the “voice” of “Ern Malley”, whose writing inspired him as a young man at Harvard. Jacket number 17 publishes two of these poems, “Potsdam” and “Aenobarbus”, here.

That issue of Jacket is a special “Hoax” issue, and has its own charms: Michael Leddy’s article “Lives and Art: John Ashbery and Henry Darger” (and Ern Malley), as well as a mountain of Ern Malley documentary material from the 1940s, a 70-page transcription of the Trial of Max Harris for publishing the original (and obscene) Ern Malley poems in 1943, Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s ‘Poetry Machine’, a three-page introduction to a poetry-writing computer he invented, given in English, and the original 20-page paper by Enzensberger explaining the theory and operation of the machine (in German): «Einladung zu einem Poesie-Automaten». Jacket 17 also features US poet Catherine Daly on Marjorie Allen Seiffert and the “Spectra” Hoax, a strange montage by German-born writer Schuldt titled “Homi Bhabha and the Forty Words” and the entire issue of «Free Grass» magazine, a hoax magazine I wrote one morning in 1968. Catch it all here: Jacket 17.

If you are interested in Ashbery (and who isn’t?) Jacket 2 featured a  special John Ashbery feature: John Ashbery poem: “The Burden of the Park”; Marjorie Perloff: Normalizing John Ashbery; John Tranter: Interview with John Ashbery, April 1985: “I’ve never really cared for «Self-Portrait» very much, and I must say I didn’t like it any more when I reread it. But I obviously had to put it in because people would expect it to be there.” And my later interview with John Ashbery in May 1988: “It seemed to me that my [first] book had fallen into a bottomless pit, and that I would never have another chance to publish another book of poems.” And my essay “Three John Ashberys: An Introduction”.

So dash over to Jacket 2 and see what all the fuss is about.

And on that Contents Page, a photo John Ashbery which I took in New York in April 1985; photo above.

Note:  John Ashbery will be a Kelly Writers House Fellow at UPenn in the [Northern] Spring of 2013.
Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania: 3805 Locust Walk, Philadelphia, PA 19104 USA; tel: 215-746-POEM. email: and on the net