Ian Probstein: Three translations of Osip Mandelstam's 'Stalin's Epigram'

Komer & Melamid, Stalin in Front of Mirror (Tempera and oil on canvas, 72”X48”, 1982-83)

It is said that a translator is like a spy: if everything is fine, the author of the original is praised and the translator is barely noticed; if not, the translator is blamed. Having that in mind, I am going to discuss several translations of Osip Mandelstam’s “Stalin’s Epigram”, which cost him two exiles and eventually, life.

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) led an unsettled life full of tribulations, wandering and exile. After his Stalin’s epigram of 1933, for which the dictator, who used to say that “vengeance is best when served cold,” never forgave the poet. Mandelstam was first sent to Cherdyn’ in Siberia, then due to protection of several powerful Communist party functionaries who were fond of Mandelstam’s poetry, the term was somehow milder: he had to live in the provincial town of Voronezh deprived of the right to live in the capital and big cities, and finally was arrested again in 1937, sent to Vladivostok labor (virtually concentration) camp where he perished in 1938. The exact date of his death is unknown; neither has the poet the grave of his own. 

The original text, arranged in two stanzas, eight lines each, as if looking forward to his famous “Octaves” the first draft of which he composed in 1933 as well.  Unlike the later deep metaphysical and esoteric poem, the epigram is written in overt manner with a lot of colloquial expressions, idioms, and even neologisms coined by the poet. It comprises alternating rhymed couplets (hence the translators changed the graphic appearance of the poem). The basic meter is alternating anapest, the first two lines are four-feet with masculine rhymes, the third and fourth are three-feet with feminine rhymes, the fifth and fourth are four-feet  masculine again and so forth. Meter and rhyme are very important for Mandelstam in general, especially in the poem under consideration, since it is based on colloquial idioms and its rhythm and rhymes remind that of “folk” couplets; hence the poet uses first person plural point of view, that of collective “we”. 

The idiomatic tone is set in the very first two lines in which Mandelstam coins idioms of his own: “not to feel the country” deconstructing two well-known idioms: “nog pod soboi ne chuyat’”: to be running very fast or to be flying, often to be beside oneself with joy (literally not to feel one’s  feet), but also: to be run off one’s feet, to be extremely exhausted; however, Mandelstam creates a new meaning implying “running without looking back from fear” and “being deaf and dumb” since the Russian “chuyat’” also means “to hear” and “to feel”; hence the poet extends  and develops it in the second line: “our speeches cannot be heard at ten paces; both meanings are rendered by the translators correctly, with the little exception that in Clarence Brown’s and W. S. Merwin’s translation active voice is changed into passive: Mandelstam: we do not feel (hear);  Brown and Merwin:  our lives don’t feel; in McDuff’s translation such words as “inaudible”, “conversation”  destroy, in my view, rhythm and music from the start, making it a literal translation.  The key image of the second “couplet” is that of Stalin’s of course: he was born and raised in Georgia, in the Caucasus; hence highlander, not “a mountaineer,” which may imply some kind of athletic competition. It is notable that at that time there were several other Georgian-born Communist party functionaries alive, for instance, Sergo Ordzhonikidze who would be killed in 1937, member of the so-called political bureau of the central committee and the minister of heavy industry; however, the reader would unmistakably identify unnamed “highlander” with Stalin.

Further, it is said that a poet-functionary Dem’yan Bednyi (real name Yefim Aleksandrovich Pridvorov, 1883-1945) who was friendly with Stalin and gave him books to read, once mentioned that Stalin returned books soiled with oily fingers, after which the poet fell out of favor, but was not persecuted further; a famous children’s poet Kornei Chukovsky wrote a long poem “Tarakanishche” [a giant cockroach] about the cockroach-dictator with giant moustache who was easily crushed in the end by a “brave sparrow,” not bigger animals. Everybody understood the implication, but it was Mandelstam who combined all the features adding Stalin’s habit of wearing a military uniform without shoulder straps (only during great holidays Stalin would put on field marshal’s, later generalissimo’s, uniform).  One of Stalin’s long-term associates, Vasily Molotov (real name Skriabin), prime-minister in 1930-1941, and minister of foreign affairs in 1939-1949 and 1953-1956, who signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, had a very thin neck; hence “chicken-necked”, as Brown and Merwin rendered, is correct, while  “thick-skinned”, as it appears in McDuff’s translation, is evidently not.  Mandelstam further creates a Russian fairy-tale-like phantasmagoria turning half-men into demons, poltergeists and evil spirits. Again, Clarence Brown’s and W. S. Merwin’s translation is more exact both rhythmically and semantically than that of McDuff’s, which is like an exact interlinear translation, especially in his last but one couplet in which he destroys the music completely.  The word “Ukaz” means in English “a decree” and goes back to the time of Ivan the Terrible, if not earlier. Etymologically, it derives from the verb “ukazyvat’,” which means “to show” or “to order.”  It is notable that the manuscript as well as the authorized edition s of Collected Works of Mandelstam reads “grants a decree after a decree”, not “forges”.  Perhaps it is linked to the Russian belief that a horseshoe brings happiness (in that meaning the word is used in Osip Mandelstam’s Pindaric Fragment “A Horseshoe Finder).

The real problem, however, is the last couplet in which Mandelstam coined a new idiom.  The word “raspberry” in a thief jargon means “a criminal underworld,” usually that of thieves; it is a well–known fact now that Koba (Stalin’s past criminal and then Bolshevik party name) was robbing postal carriages, trains and even banks. “Old Bolsheviks” were uneasy about that, but since they needed money, Lenin convinced them that Stalin “expropriated” the rich giving money to the party (a Bolshevik Robin Hood of a kind).  What seems even more important, however, is that the Russian idiom “ne zhisn’ a malina” [life like a raspberry] means “la dolce vita,” a sweet life. Mandelstam replaces “life” with “execution”, thus rhyming them since the Russian for “execution” [kazn’] and life [zhizn’] form a slant dissonance rhyme.  In my view, it is impossible to render images, especially idioms literally into a foreign language; thus it is necessary to replace “raspberry”, which does not have the above implication in English. At first, I was considering just “a piece of cake” or even “a raspberry cake”, but then decided to move further and have chosen the English idiom “cakes and ale” and added a rhyme “jail,” which is justifiable, in my view, since Stalin has long been associated with the development of the prison and concentration camp system.  In the end, Mandelstam consciously replaced “Georgian” with “Osette” because the Russian word “Ossetina” in comparison with “Gruzina” has an extra syllable necessary for preserving the meter, not just rhyme.  It can be also justified since Stalin’s paternal grandfather Vissarion Dzhugashvili is said to be Ossetian. Although in my own translation I was not quite able to preserve anapest everywhere, I tried to preserve the rhyme and an alternation of longer and shorter lines.

Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (1891 -1938)

     Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны,
     Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,
     А где хватит на полразговорца,
     Там припомнят кремлевского горца.
     Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,
     И слова, как пудовые гири, верны,
     Тараканьи смеются глазища
     И сияют его голенища.

     А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих вождей,
     Он играет услугами полулюдей.
     Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
     Он один лишь бабачит и тычет.
     Как подкову, дари'т за указом указ --
     Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз.
     Что ни казнь у него -- то малина
     И широкая грудь осетина.

             Ноябрь 1933

PennSound link of Probstein reading this poem in Russian: MP3 

Clarence Brown’s  and W. S. Merwin’s Translation:
New York: Atheneum, 1974.

Our lives no longer feel ground under them
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
It turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

The ten thick worms his fingers,
His words like measures of weight,

The huge laughing cockroaches on top of his lip,
The glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
He toys with the tributes of half men.

One whistles, another meouws, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one for the forehead, temple, eye .

He rolls the executions of his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friend back home.

David McDufff’s translation
            Osip Mandelstam. Selected Poems. London: Writers and Readers, 1983.

We live without feeling the country beneath us,
our speech at ten paces inaudible,

and where there are enough for half a conversation
the name of the Kremlin mountaineer is dropped.

His thick fingers are fatty like worms,
but his words are as true as pound weights.

his cockroach whiskers laugh,
and the tops of his boots shine.

Around him a rabble of thick-skinned leaders,
he plays with the attentions of half-men.

Some whistle, some miaul, some shivel,
but he just bangs and pokes.

He forges his decrees like horseshoes —
some get it in the groin, some in the forehead.
            some in the brows, some in the eyes.

Whatever the punishment he gives — raspberries,
And the broad chest of an Osette.


Translated by Ian Probstein

We live without feeling our country’s pulse,
We can’t hear ourselves, no one hears us,
If a word is uttered by chance,
Kremlin highlander is remembered at once.
Like worms his thick fingers are fat,
His words like pound weights are correct,
His cockroach moustache is full of laughter,
His army boots shine, he is sought after

By a mob of thin-necked leaders, half-men,
He uses their service, manipulating them:
Some are meowing or whistling, or whining,
He alone is poking, boking, and winning.
Like horseshoes, he grants his every decree
Poking some in the groin, in the brow, in the eye.
His executions are like cakes and ale,
His broad chest of Ossete eclipses the jail.



Editor’s note: some more translations of this poem

Dimitri Smirnov

We are living, but can’t feel the land where we stay,
More than ten steps away you can’t hear what we say.
But if people would talk on occasion,
They should mention the Kremlin Caucasian.
His thick fingers are bulky and fat like live-baits,
And his accurate words are as heavy as weights.
Cucaracha’s moustaches are screaming,
And his boot-tops are shining and gleaming.
But around him a crowd of thin-necked henchmen,
And he plays with the services of these half-men.
Some are whistling, some meowing, some sniffing,
He’s alone booming, poking and whiffing.
He is forging his rules and decrees like horseshoes –
Into groins, into foreheads, in eyes, and eyebrows.
Every killing for him is delight,
And Ossetian torso is wide.


Scott Horton

We live, not sensing our own country beneath us,
Ten steps away they dissolve, our speeches,
But where enough meet for half-conversation,
The Kremlin hillbilly is our preoccupation.
They’re like slimy worms, his fat fingers,
His words, as solid as weights of measure.
In his cockroach moustaches there’s a hint
Of laughter, while below his top boots gleam.
Round him a mob of thin-necked henchmen,
He pursues the enslavement of the half-men.
One whimpers, another warbles,
A third miaows, but he alone prods and probes.
He forges decree after decree, like horseshoes –
In groins, foreheads, in eyes, and eyebrows.
Wherever an execution’s happening though –
there’s raspberry, and the Ossetian’s giant torso


John Simkin

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.
Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders -
fawning half-men for him to play with.
The whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,
One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, to the eye or the groin.
And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.

See also:
“On Translating a Poem by Osip Mandelstam” by José Manuel Prieto, tr. Esther Allen

Ian Probstein's translation of "Untruth"

With Michael McClure & Jack Foley: Writing between the lines 1955/2013/2014

[The following work began with Jack Foley’s writing “between the lines” of Michael McClure’s famous poem, “For the Death of 100 Whales,” first recited at the famed Six Gallery reading in 1955 San Francisco.  With my own proclivity toward collaborative writing & thinking I came into the process a few months after Foley, which stretches the time frame of the final work to the almost present.  Typographically McClure’s original poem appears in roman type, Foley’s respones in italic, & mine in bold italic.  The McClure poem of course is the true jewel in the crown, and “the rest,” as someone said, “is commentary.” (J.R.)]

Hung midsea

Not Death,
Nor Life
Like a boat mid-air
The liners boiled their pastures:
at the poetry reading,
the sea before light,
The liners of flesh,
beautiful white hair
hanks coming loose
The Arctic steamers
straining toward shore

Brains the size of a teacup
brain sizzling,
brain at my call,
Mouths the size of a door

The sleek wolves

the vowels and consonants
the words laid to rest
Mowers and reapers of sea kine.
of Ecstasy.
Eager & willing.
Sweet meat,
Pronged on my teeth
(Meat their algae)
Ecstatic mammal
Luminous fish
is still leaping
Like sheep or children
like a child or William Blake
like a sea or a firmament
Shot from the sea's bore.
into the fantastical, deep azure of poetic consciousness,
the freaky passageways of times to come,
Turned and twisted
Flung blood and sperm.
blood, bone and sinew
ballots, bullets, barbers
into the precise
the paradise
Gnashed at their tails and brothers
contemplation of air.
of whales & mothers.
Cursed Christ of mammals,
Burning Babes in amber
Snapped at the sun,
drunk with the sun,
the sun lost in its waters,
Ran for the Sea's floor.
Door opener.

Goya! Goya!

Goya thrice!
Oh Lawrence
hottest blood of all
No angels dance those bridges.
of the birds, beasts and flowers,
everywhere concealed & known
Angelic presence.
Hidden from my ear & eye
There are no churches in the waves,
There is no church but this,
which is no church
No holiness,
no holiness,
no place to hide,
No passages or crossings
no “passages”
no “crossings”
From the beasts' wet shore.
but this man’s deep words in the crowded room.
from which no beast breaks free.

Witness Ed Ruscha and Tan Lin

Words inappropriate to the (p)age

Ruscha, Talk Radio 1987, Acrylic on canvas, private collection.
Ruscha, Talk Radio 1987, Acrylic on canvas, private collection.

What is a derelict void?

What does “museum studies” mean by “context”? What if it were “museological environment”? An artwork would be out of context until it was taken out of context. But what does it mean to take an object out of context? Or a non-object? It must be a kind of displacement that is more historical and geographical than it is temporal and spatial. Because the time of the piece must unfold in a serviceable manner, and the space must be arrayed contiguous to its virtuous features, the features that display “it,” the approximate museological environment conserves period and style. Old is good. “Modern” is bad, except as a paradigm. By paradigm here is meant “real-to-ready phenomena,” the kind that make my encounter with the object contemporaneous to it.

Boris Groys distinguishes between the traditionally “anonymous and neutral” exhibition space and that of the “curatorial project” in terms of the effect upon the artworks therein. Just as any encyclopedic museum’s permanent collection festers with significance, the fact that these pieces happen to find “rest” there renders them timeless. They could be anywhere, so they are as good as everywhere at any point whatsoever. Groys says the curatorial project, which includes those artworks we call “installations,” but whose museological zenith is the special exhibition, is different because it “inscribes the exhibited artworks in this contingent material space.”

Thus, stationary artworks of the traditional sort become temporalized, subjected to a certain scenario that changes the way they are perceived during the time of the installation because this perception is dependent on the context of their presentation—and this context begins to flow. Thus, ultimately, every curatorial project demonstrates its accidental, contingent, eventful, finite character—in other words, it enacts its own precariousness.

My interest in Ed Ruscha’s drawings and paintings of texts was renewed a few years ago when I made an unplanned visit to Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, and happened into Ruscha’s Chocolate Room installation from 1970, which is held in their permanent collection. Groys’ terms “installation” and “curatorial project” are not entirely interchangeable, and Ruscha’s piece demonstrates one (admittedly fuzzy) reason why. The curator “inscribes” a given work, but Ruscha’s script went flush with its own pungent surface—an ironically Greenbergian move. Chocolate Room debuted at the Venice Biennale while many like-minded artists boycotted to protest the ongoing Vietnam War. What he offered by silk-screening chocolate panels along the walls was a replete void. I was overcome by the sensuality of the space at the same time as I felt a pleasant vacuum of sense. I was also drained of any memory of its supposed status as a protest gesture, relieved of both its political and aesthetic historicity. Of course the biggest difference is that Ruscha was given space. Curators are given space and works to fill it. Installation is both means and end, cause and effect.

What I loved about entering Chocolate Room was that humorous, even care-free sensation of the right fit. The mot juste. I warned you the reason was fuzzy. I quickly leafed through a catalog of his text works and hit upon that feeling again in Talk Radio. The fickle pairing of the phrase “talk radio” (itself a pair of referents: modern frequency modulation and postmodern media formatting) with a, for me, historically precise landscape (everyone with a window seat knows this image) nails it. Nails what? It. The point was to change it, said Marx. A lot of good that’s done. The problem is not in the direction we point that thing. Don’t point that thing at me, either. The problem is in the pointing.

What I tried to do next failed. I picked up a remaindered copy of They Called Her Styrene, Phaidon’s book of Ruscha’s works on paper, a book with practically nothing to read except a few hundred text works (scaled to the size of postcards). The back matter suggests that it can be read as a plotless novel. I thought I’d try to read it as a book, at least. In visual tone and linguistic theme, there are relations that momentarily suggest subsequence, action, and character to unite the two. But these relationships are surprisingly obvious, compared to the dazzling ambiguity of any one of the images. Example: “DREAMS / SEX / THE / FIX / NERVE / WE’RE THIS AND WE’RE THAT, AREN’T WE?” My hypothesis was that if reading the book worked—reading, not leafing through a catalog, mind you—I might find a platform for writing that is pointless and changing, and so revolutionary to the core. Unhappy with the results, I have faith that the forms of reading Tan Lin describes in his Ambient Stylistics series—particularly Seven Controlled Vocabularies—will be bookended by Lin himself. Perhaps only he could help me recapture my utterly bland feeling for the painted word.

Ruscha confirms Walter Hopps’ observation that the first words he painted were a bunch of place names, and then road signs, billboards and product packaging. He does it by referring to getting it right, “faithful reproduction,” which he manages “sometimes.” I want to underscore the fact that the sort of words that lead into his life’s work are fundamentally deictic. Place names are especially senseless without the capacity to be there; they put the there there. In Talk Radio, though, we are up and away, any place between nodal points that brew down to ports of call, called by that place, whatever it is called. In the language is an anarchy of exchange values.

Ruscha’s countercultural chops have never matched his drafting skill. The ambivalence operating in his text works extends to genre; maybe they are poems. His politics are equally ambivalent, acutely evident by his sense of gender politics. As Alexandra Schwartz puts it, Ruscha prefers “to satirize [his] swashbuckling Stud persona, to reinforce it, or (most likely) both.” Critics’ consensus is that he is artist most likely to do both. Erotic ferocity and conceptualist neutrality are there in equal measure—or, as his work progresses, I think, he graduates from ambivalence to equivocation, a studied sense of poise providing constant fodder for artworld discourse. There is always something clever to say about Ruscha’s work because we keep expecting it to tell us something. This equivocation as aesthetic texture reminds me not only of Lin, but of Gertrude Stein.

Notwithstanding the ways in which artists appropriate the literary field—yet poets are writers first and artists, or scholars, second, right?—the text works have a keen sense of camp. As a “Pop” artist, Ruscha lets this bleed through a carefully applied sheen. I think the combined effect owes to that point of “metaphysical subtleties” in our ocular processes described by Marx in the commodity fetish.

This is the reason why the products of labor become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way  the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value relation between the products of labor which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, a fantastic form of a relation between things.

And just as quickly, the work feels tepid. It insinuates contrariness but is really just culture. This is the effect of an epistemological ruse that exacts from the basic declarative thrust of the word(s) the sinisiter repleteness of a very partial view. Drawn or painted, any statement by Ruscha is contextualized by medium (gunpowder, oils, etc.). Chocolate Room is all medium. The relation of things is minimized and obfuscated by the pungency of its surface value. One wonders how the print shop survived, not how the artist came out clean. Text works, though, exalt the printed word as apparition. Even when liquidity is depicted, it is the manual fidelity to a font that matters.

Ruscha, Lips 1968, Oil on canvas, Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah

Talk Radio is a good example. It responds to rhetorical analysis. “Talk radio” acts as a nomative case figure for its backdrop. In the vocative case, it comes into its own (context). It beams up. Ruscha’s signature diagonal plane becomes a pun. Money talks. Or it speaks (volumes). Suddenly we’re in business class, semiocapital transmissions buoying us on a swift ascent. As Ken Allen has shown, this was an early achievement in view of the exigencies of “spectatorship in 1960s Los Angeles”; “Ruscha repeatedly addresses the dynamic between the pictorial space, the mental space, and the actual space that structures…encounters with works of art as objects.” Its spatio-temporal specificity is its ahistorical self-regard—and for reasons history teaches. This conclusion is kissing cousin to Olivier Berggruen’s claim that Ruscha extends Wittgenstein’s aspect blindness past Richard Willheim’s curative “twofoldness,” all the way to a threefold play between “the surface of the work, its representational content (aesthetic objects in the form of words) and the words as conduit to linguistic meaning.” The question of going beyond the relation of things to a social relation is only a semiotic one—a question for poetics—if these cultural and formalist triads can be superimposed, rendered as (rather than reduced to) a verbal phenomenon.

Though Rosalind Krauss argues that Ruscha explodes the dogma of medium-specificity, I am tempted to add that, in the terms of Prague School linguistics, he writes in so doing. Jifi Veltrusky asserts that the primary distinction between painting and language is that the former “uses material that is by no means exclusive to it,” while “the articulated sounds used in language are not used anywhere else.” In an attempt to transcend “iconology,” a thematic translation of “the pictorial sign” into “words,” he cites Matisse’s desire to convene alternatives “related to…quality.” Any “aspect” of a picture has a “differential value” that, unlike the linguistic sign, can be re-classified or “freely changed…by any single picture.” While usage is a limited response to Saussure’s closed, synchronic chain of arbitration, the modern painter creates intrinsic systems. A postmodern painter presumably enjoys this legacy to the extent that she can recontextualize found language. Even suggested by idle revery, a phrase stumbled upon is appropriated. Ruscha puts it this way: “When I first started painting it became an exercise in using, oh, guttural utterings…painting an environment for what the word sounded like and looked like at the same time.” Hence he never misspells a word, and “never wanted to.”. Hence the “backdrops” are “anonymous.” The system must present itself as a system. The words don’t name a thing.

Detail from Ruscha's Thirtyfour Parking Lots 1967

Let’s look at the modern system of naming per excellence, the book, but, taking a cue from Lin, turn it over so its back cover is facing us. We don’t have to. Reading Lin’s Seven Controlled Vocabularies, this is done for us in photographs reproduced there, thankfully in small enough dimensions that anything printed on the covers is illegible. "Literature…is a method for extracting non-variable information at the moment before it is released… Reading a novel is like looking at a movie of a rainbow in order to get one's bearings." Seven Controlled Vocabularies distinguishes “books [that] function as labels rather than mirrors,” the former being “generic” such that “removing the jacket…is the best way to create a kind of empty enclosure…or closed parking garage without it…[T]here is no plot and/or character” to be indexed or with whom to identify, as one stands before their own (self-) image in a looking glass. Beside the “less than visible things beyond the book” which are infinitely available to indexical marks—the mirror is “manual” and the label is “digital." “One never really knows what is beside a parking lot or a book.” Does he have in mind Ruscha’s book of parking lots? He does like to write indexes to other people’s photographs—recently, those by Diana Kingsley.

Two thirds of the way through Seven Contolled Vocabularies comes a chapter entitled “Various Library Standards.” The chapter consists of the book’s acknowledgments, dedication, an appendix and prefaces. That is part of the overall design of the book, to raise the apparatus to the surface so that it is only “mildly operative,” so that you are looking at it instead of undertaking its directives. Even the front cover is the back. The other half of this chapter, though, provides bittersweet eye candy. It consists of images of pages from other books: first, the index to Roland Barthes’ Image-Music-Text; second, Laura Riding’s 1986 foreward to her magnum opus Rational Meaning, an argument that the days of connotation are through: “one word, one meaning.” How the lilt of the tongue or other utter nonsense intervenes is a false question. By offering the image of Riding’s forward, Lin forces me into iconology in order to quote what is said there. Riding insists that, despite appearances, Rational Meaning’s argument is “not of a kind to come under the heading ‘Linguistics,’ or any heading of ‘semantic’ reference (as ‘semiotics,’ ‘semiology’).” It’s a book about usage that, she finds, “presents the scene of the human mind” in a moral bind. The quest is for a “difficulty of thought executed with an earthly ease of speech the mind can love.” The bind means there is ample reason to reach the decision one is bound to make, between this form of relaxation and a devilish stupor.

I want to imagine that looking at a page of a page has prosodic value. This value sets the stakes in rhetoric, usage. Denigrating the role of the sign as she does puts this image face forward. I’m not saying I look at the page and hear the machine below the bed of the scanner, passing by. It’s not an index or icon of or for its making. Rather, its prosodic value is in its relevance to Lin’s own discursive treatment of the book containing said discourse, a discourse all about what poetry ought to aspire to. Relaxation. Ease, the ethos of his entire “ambient stylistics” series. Lin did not make the image. It is not drawn, nor apparently derived with an artisanal signature of any kind. The author’s voice is beside the point. If my vocal chords remain dormant, I have followed the cue perfectly.

Jerome McGann’s summation of the problem of usage that led Riding to pursue poetics by repudiating her practice as a poet underscores a distinction between making (“the inherited illusions of poiesis”) and telling. Telling, he says, “keeps the linguistic act in a conscious state of process”—ease of speech carries the “difficult” labor of thought along, as it were, utterly and tellingly. Intoned writing prevents what we sometimes call “closure.” And telling “prevents the reader from fetishing the work.” Maybe Lin’s point is that this can only be prevented if the reader is not told what to say by what it requires one to say. My sense is that prosody is only as interesting as it plays two simultaneous roles: it is the script as well as the score. Lin’s reproduction of pages calibrates these dual functions such that the viewer equivocates between looking and reading, until finally one suffices for the other. Ambient reading practices are satisfied with glancing at signals, just beneath the threshold of attention. A score shows one how it appears to be said. But here that appearance is entirely relational. The “text” shares our level and our kind of regard. Rational Meaning is “our book” to thrum through or across like a tale untethered to its host organism.

Front cover of Tan Lin's BIB., REV. ED.

When I teach Gertrude Stein, I bring into class a techno 12” and my copy of Making of Americans. I pass them around and ask students to look at both the grooved and inked patterns of these documents, and compare. We play a game of epistemological jukebox jury. This is how I read Lin’s BIB., REV. ED., short for bibliography, revised edition, a book that just shouldn’t exist as such. It is unabashedly redundant (unreadable?), a list of years worth of daily reading matter. “Reading is ambient,” writes Lin in BIB., REV. ED., “whether it takes place in an online or offline environment, and in both cases it forms the background and occasionally the foreground of our attention…” What for Riding was poetry’s spiritual “creed,” to make “forms intended for oral or written delivery” into attributes of truth becomes Lin’s litany of titles available for ocular or intellectual receipt. That’s the conceit of the exhaustive index. It’s a kind of cartridge music you tell yourself sounds like it looks. The index works well the more it distracts you.

A derelict void is one whose politics are impenetrable. A fan of designer food, Lin’s work helps me to inhabit Ruscha’s chocolate factory, really a print shop. There’s that terrible hemistich: the writing is on the wall. Of course, you just want to melt, and reenter the flow.

Varieties of Cape Cod water temperatures


67 & above: like a bath
66: could be Florida
65: perfect
64: better than yesterday 
63: refreshing 
62: colder than yesterday 
61: chilly
60: bracing
59: not bad once in
58 & below: fucking freezing

ModPo announces partnership with the New York Public Library

A still from the introductory video to ModPo.

We are all looking forward to the start of ModPo 2014 on September 6. The site will open at 9 AM Philadelphia time. At that moment (and of course any time after) you’ll be able to go here

and click through to the actual ModPo site.

Meantime, I’m pleased to announce that I will be in Prague, Czech Republic, on Tuesday, October 14, to join a meet-up/gathering of any and all ModPo’ers in the area. We will gather at 7 PM Prague time. We are looking for a place to host the event. If you can help us, or know of a good place, please contact me.

Of course we encourage the formation of ModPo meet-ups – weekly, monthly, one-time, whatever. Once the course starts you can use the “Study Groups” discussion forum for organizing both virtual and face-to-face gatherings.

I’m writing today to announce that ModPo and the New York Public Library are collaborating to host a weekly meet-up every Thursday from 5:30-7 PM during ModPo’s 10-week session, starting on September 11.  I myself will convene and moderate the first of the weekly NYC gatherings – September 11 at 5:30 PM. The group will meet every week at the Hudson Park Library located at 66 Leroy Street, New York, NY 10014. If you are in NYC or nearby, please plan to join us for each week or any week.

Many thanks to Luke Swarthout, Isaac Cameron & Miranda Murray of NYPL and our own Julia Bloch for working out this collaboration. We will announce further such collaborations in the future.

Below is a list of all the TAs and Community TAs (or CTAs) for ModPo 2014. The TAs are highlighted in bold. They will be joined, of course, by me, Julia Bloch, and our amazing IT guys, Chris Martin and Zach Carduner. What a team! We’re all glad you’ll be joining us. We are very grateful for the CTAs, who have volunteered their time and energy to make ModPo among the most interactive and responsive and humane MOOCs anywhere.

TAs (in bold) and CTAs for ModPo 2014

Lily Applebaum
Dennis Aguinaldo
Karren Alenier
Mary Armour
Sangeet Bird
David Blaine
Andrea Buonincontro
Ali Castleman
Mandana Chaffa
Ian Chowcat
Matthew Corey
Amaris Cuchanski
Laura Cushing
T. De Los Reyes
Jeremy Dixon
Marc Drexler
Kent Ekberg
Tamboura Gaskins
Dave Green
Emily Harnett
Mark Herron
Allan Keeton
Bob Keim
Robin Kello
Ray Maxwell
Max McKenna
Marcia Nuffer
Molly O'Neill
Paige Polcene
Therese Pope
Dave Poplar
Nicola Quinn
Christina Rau
Ingrid Ruthig
Mark Snyder
Massimo Soranzio
Bill Speer
Carol Stephen
Treva Stose
Anna Strong
Eric Alan Weinstein
Jason Zuzga