'Reasons for singing': On John Taggart
The vision seeks the man — Zora Neale Hurston
I first encountered John Taggart’s work while living in Boulder, Colorado, circa 1990. A now long-vanished indie bookstore, the Aion, which had a remarkably rich poetry collection (oh, for the era of real booksellers!), actually called me to say they had a few books I might like. There, alongside some vintage Black Sparrow and New Directions, I picked up this very strange-looking book called The Pyramid Is a Pure Crystal. Immersed as I was — a graduate student in English at CU working with Ed Dorn, among others — my tastes ran more to the external, or to the occasional/political performance of something like protest. The first Bush war was on, and Taggart’s quiescence and mathematical exactitude were a bit lost on me, though the elegance of both the design and the procedures of the book were obvious. I admired the distinct hand presence in the boxed word sets, the exactitude with which they seemed to offer some mysterious master theorem. But the book got put away. Some years later I came to a more complex understanding of the postwar inheritances of American poetry and so to the necessity of John Taggart’s poetry. One book specifically, Peace on Earth, awoke a new stream in my listening. My largely unaccomplished musical ambitions (saxophone) still simmering, it was the abiding presence of John Coltrane in the poems, and the extended measure of their circular breathing:
To want to be a saint to want to be a saint to want to
to want to be a saint to be the snail-tailed one to want to
be snake-tailed with wings to be a snake-tailed saint with wings to
want to be a saint to want to awaken men wake men from nightmare
Neither a description of someone playing an instrument nor an impression of jazz epiphany, the poem “Giant Steps” infinitivizes desire into a kind of physical awakening. Later, in the title poem, we get “To love to love those to love those who / are in to love those who are in a condition / in a condition / of hiding”; and “Care opens the face / untwists the face” (19). Love, it turns out, is a stance toward humanity, in this case, humanity imperiled during the Vietnam War. How to “carry torches, carry each other?” Literally, through an echoic circle of repetitions, recursions, and accretions, my aural senses seemed to become plural, and time stretched. Choral witness? What was this ghost figure circling in my ear, page to page? How did these poems move laterally across many pages without stalling out, losing (or benumbing) the echo, or grasping too easily after closure? And, perhaps more importantly, how could this poem make me feel simultaneously ecstatic and outraged? In short, how could an essentially lyric framework sing to such a profoundly political purpose? Lyric and ethics, and a breathtaking clarity. I was hooked; from this midcareer landmark I found myself reading backward to the early work and forward to whatever next book emerged.
As I’ve come to understand there is something continuous in the work of John Taggart. Thinking on and through, thinking with, “a case = relation.” Lines as artifactual actions notating culture, history, and faith as a recirculatory figure centered on/experienced by a first person, but the person changes; how, as Creeley says, “the local is not a place but a place in a given man — what part of it he has been compelled or else brought by love to give witness to in his own mind. And that is THE form, that is, the whole thing, as whole as it gets.” John Taggart’s whole thing seems uncannily of a piece, compelled by a various love to bear witness in decidedly formal and urgent poems. Distinctive, looping repetitions, phrasal accretions, often hinged on infinitive verb constructions, hovering, open field pages, incantatory crescendos and releases more akin to musical composition than poetry — all oddly about something, you hear a Taggart poem when you see one. “The vision seeks the man.” Behind this is the physical earth on which Taggart has plotted his course. It is as much a plat as an open book; increasingly, it is his home place in rural Pennsylvania, which is to say there is “a there there” to the ground on which Taggart tests his sincerity and, as such, makes his practice a unique example of field poetics. Something specific of late twentieth-century historicity, something actual in the climes in which it is experienced. The page aligns with the place, bears increasing traces. Not surprisingly, there is also a great variety of subjects, places in the given man.
More specifically, John Taggart’s sincerity-in-sound-structure manifests as four largely continuous attentions: a significant body of work written on/from/about art, music, and literature — Bradford Graves, Edward Meatyard, Edward Hopper, Edward Weston, Mark Rothko; Marvin Gaye, John Coltrane, Steve Reich, Sainte-Colombe, Olivier Messiaen; Marianne Moore, Louis Zukofsky, Thomas Bertram, Lorine Niedecker, Henry David Thoreau, etc.; some of the most distinguished long poems of the postwar period — “The Rothko Chapel Poem,” “Peace on Earth,” Pyramid, Dodeka, When the Saints, “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” etc.; a poetry deeply attuned to matters of the divine ecumenically construed; and a particularly distinctive musical style that proliferates and permutates through serial composition. These four aspects have been a constant since his first book in 1969. Yet it has also been observed (Peter O’Leary) that his poems have evolved across three distinct formal shifts. We might group the books thusly: the highly structural and mathematical To Construct a Clock, The Pyramid Is a Pure Crystal, and Dodeka; the looser and more compulsively repetitious wave forms of Peace on Earth, Loop, Standing Wave; and the more improvisational/discrete-but-also-personally-intimate collections of the 2000s, When the Saints, Pastorelles, and There Are Birds. There are other books before and within these evolutions, but the structural fingerprints of these stylistic formations inheres. Yet across these evolutions there is a constant attention to the incremental song, or what Taggart himself has called “songs of degrees,” the title of his excellent book of essays, and a pun on two of Taggart’s poetic wellsprings: Zukofsky, specifically his volume Some Time (1956); and the Psalms (Songs of Degrees, 120–134). In this manner thinking and singing are inextricably bound up for John Taggart with reading and listening, a reading and listening that for the last forty years has charted a distinct course in postwar American poetry.
With the publication of Is Music: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon 2011), we have the first substantial retrospective of his career: “change over time a long time like / all of your lifetime” (There Are Birds, 53). What emerges is something of a paradox, Berlin’s hedgehog and fox: a dogged commitment to a procedural methodology of reading and writing that is defined but increasingly open, and an expansive range of subjects, conversants, and texts that is also defined but increasingly open. What emerges as well is a turn in the sense of the frame — the look back at the thirteen previous books of poems — which reveals an evolution that is perhaps less Objectivist than previously thought, and more profoundly musical and devotional. Perhaps more profoundly “green,” as well, a green that is local and material — immanence as local time — that operates increasingly by metonymic associations that trope the garden in western literature. A process of thinking and singing, to be sure, and a kind of contract with a particular reader who might participate in the unfolding of the poem in the act of reading, a contract that poet Thom Donovan says “shares the burden of a single intention conflating ‘author’ and ‘reader,’ ‘composer’ and ‘performer,’ ‘score’ and ‘instrument.’” Taggart’s work demands our attention for its commitment to poetry as a means of finding things out; there’s sustained wisdom in poems, and a practical ethics: “the tree the she / what’s the aim what’s the to be departed from / to come further/far into the woods further / far into memory // to a body / to an intense face” (There Are Birds, 50). Importantly this face viewing the reader is also a request to read and listen to the poem aloud:
There can be no doubt. The question is how to the poem is to be returned to enacted speech as a first consideration in composition and as a final, radical reality. How is the poem to be the voice’s enactment of language, one interior calling out to another, so there may be presence and community. (Songs of Degrees, 76)
Fortunately, we have two recent performances of John reading: the entire “The Rothko Chapel Poem” at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, thanks to Michelle Ashton and Ashley Clemmer Hoffman; and John reading large portions of There Are Birds at the University of Texas, thanks to Matt Valentine. Is Music, the nominative subject of poetry; is music, the sound of the human voice; is music, the present tense of poetry.
This feature originated in my correspondence with John Taggart, soliciting poems for Colorado Review, for which I am a poetry editor. In the exchange John also sent the essay, here included, “Some Notes on Singing and Thinking.” So taken was I with this piece, and with a recent reading of Is Music, that I felt some obligation to gather materials, find a good home. What you will discover here is a variety of writings on/to/for/from poets and critics for whom Taggart’s work is necessary. More particularly, the feature includes John’s essay, and a poem by John, and essays, appreciations, poems, and reflections across the full range of Taggart’s career. I’ve organized the materials loosely along the path of publication. Peter O’Leary provides a trenchant frame from which to see Taggart’s compulsive repetitions. Karl Young, publisher of the early Dodeka and Dehiscence, ruminates on Taggart’s play with memory as “shadow music,” and Mark Scroggins revises a take on the looping remixes of not only Taggart, but the Talking Heads, Minimalism, and the labyrinthine mode of literature. Joseph Donahue continues in the labyrinth to explore the ritualized action of “The Rothko Chapel Poem’s” matrimonial, a drama nicely embodied by the recent recording. Patrick Pritchett sources the jazz-tinged river of Taggart’s poems to a radically messianic imperative. Later looks take up Pastorelles (Matthew Cooperman, against Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s Green and Gray) and There Are Birds (Marjorie Welish’s visual condensations on “Grey Scale/Zukofsky,” and Robert Bertholf’s paratextual expansions on “Unveiling/Marianne Moore”) suggesting an evolution away from a sustained and uniform repetition and toward a more incremental and discrete measure. Pam Rehm offers a vivid portrait of John’s legendary correspondence, and Joel Chace’s photography shows what these letters look like. And there’s a remarkable letter from John to Ronald Johnson serving up some shared affinities. Interspersed are poetic assays by Stephen Ratcliffe, Eléna Rivera, Jon Thompson, and Brad Vogler, which show moving evidence of Taggart’s measure, as well as its possibilities for collaborative composition (“Seeds Sown for John Taggart”). Be sure to link over to PennSound for the recent recordings of John, reading at the Rothko Chapel in Houston and at the Joynes Reading Room of University of Texas in Austin. To underline the obvious, to stress the plural, there are reasons for singing on/in/for John Taggart.
1. Epigraph from John Taggart, Standing Wave (Providence, RI: Lost Roads Press, 1993): “it is a poem about singing about reasons for singing / reasons one of the reasons for singing / the reason was to light the most quiet light /the reason was to light the light that was radiantia / radiantia that was a singing light in darkness.”
2. Ed Dorn, “On the Authority of Root Meanings, the External, and the Making of Gunslinger, circa 1967,” in Ed Dorn Live: Lectures, Interviews, and Outtakes, ed. Joe Richey (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007). In this provocative essay, Dorn recalibrates etymological source toward the environment: “Linguistic surroundings can prompt redefinition on the spur of the moment, according to one’s feel for the galaxies of words. They point forward very often, these definitions within the poem. Certain words signal the deepest sense a word possesses, because its meaning is created in the environment and, in that sense, is way beyond, and more vital to the word than, the dictionary” (8).
7. Taggart, Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994); Louis Zukofsky, Some Time, noted in Anew: Complete Shorter Poetry (New York: New Directions, 2011).