Un-scene, ur-new

The history of the longpoem and 'The Collage Poems of Drafts'

Rachel Blau DuPlessis in 1985.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis in 1985.

I first encountered Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts when the first two sections appeared in Leland Hickman’s journal Temblor 5, an issue in which I had an essay on the evolution of the sentence in George Oppen’s poetry. I had known DuPlessis’s work at that point for maybe ten years and had met her on several occasions. In 1984, Rae Armantrout & I had traveled down from New York City to read at Temple at Rachel’s behest. Rachel had had a poem, “Afterimage,” a piece I now read as an anticipation of Drafts, in Temblor 4.[1] And soon I started to find other numbers turn up in small press journals. I still have a rather crumpled issue of Abacus 44 from August 1989, a photocopied newsletter that devoted its entire issue to “Draft #8: The and Draft #9: Page.”[2] Two years after that, Peter Ganick, who edited Abacus, brought out the first separate volume, entitled Drafts, from his Potes & Poets Press.[3]

If I had paid closer attention at that point, I would have noted that the book’s title page actually uses another name: Drafts 3–14, although neither the table of contents nor the titles of individual poems themselves show numbers, save for “X: Letters,” Rachel’s first use of the alphabet form, albeit in the mode of the typewriter (and now computer) QWERTY keyboard. If I had paid even closer attention, I would have noted that the poems were numbered in the volume’s end notes and that the cover of this edition is a small collage by DuPlessis herself (see below), composed for the most part of torn scraps of paper with words — DATE, IM, PLACE read three in the same font titled sideways, JOURN reads another likewise tilted, plus along the top just enough of the upper portion of letters to make out Inside Message in very small type, and along the left at the bottom, not far from an upside down handwritten R, the droll line: Words inside are printed in black. DuPlessis’s engagement with words as visual markers as well as semantic ones dates back to the very beginning. If I’d thought to look back to find the missing first two Drafts, I might have noted the handwritten Ns & Ys. As it is, the Potes & Poets Drafts starts with “Of,” whose first seven stanzas are bracketed together by a line down the left margin that is marked, sideways & to the left of the margin, CUT.

Cover of
Drafts, 1991.

But, as I said, I didn’t notice most of these things. What I did see was the inescapable fact that Rachel Blau DuPlessis had begun a longpoem.

The longpoem is the apotheosis of the modernist literary project. Modernism’s long march through the genres saw its aesthetic perspective demonstrate the impossibility of normative fiction in the work of such various practitioners as Joyce, Beckett, & Stein, and to tear down the fourth wall of drama in Brecht so as to mount a theatre of dreamscape in Beckett, leaving both forms to carry on (Call that going? Call that on?) only insofar as their practitioners were prepared to concede the underlying debasement of the project — why, in fact, so-called genre fiction has fared so much better than its literary cousin over the past several decades.

The longpoem presumes anything but the debasement of poetry. Or at least of the poetic principle. While the epic poetical project has antecedents as far back as the Odyssey or the epic of Gilgamesh, and as recent as the writing of Blake, Whitman or Bob Browning, the form as we know it today coalesces with the composition of Pound’s Cantos, “the Alps” as Basil Bunting once characterized the project.[4] Pound’s “great ball of crystal” proved the template against which such iconic works as William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Louis Zukofsky’s “A,” Charles Olson’s Maximus & Robert Duncan’s Passages all measured themselves. Whenever other longish projects of the modernist period have been brought into the discussion — I’m thinking here for example of H.D.’s Trilogy, though The Anathemata by David Jones might also make my point — The Cantos invariably has never been far from the surface of conversation.

The modernist longpoem thus can be viewed in some pretty specific formal terms — it extends one of the three great poetic innovations of the nineteenth century (free verse, dramatic monologue, the prose poem) by giving free verse something big to do, usually — and Pound’s influence here is palpable — by extending strategies of line & stanza that embody the visual impact of the typewriter onto the language of the poem. Plus it generally invokes history as its discursive horizon. This is not necessarily all that the longpoem can do — Zukofsky invokes the domestic, particularly once his son Paul is born in 1943, fifteen years after the start of “A.”

Zukofsky also, and this is crucial, recasts the part:whole relationship between individual sections and the overall arc of the project itself, shifting away from the in media res surface quality favored by Pound (or for that matter Joyce in Finnegans Wake), traceable all the way back to Horace’s definition, circa 13 BC, of the ideal epic poet. I used to read this evolution as a break, beginning with “A”-7, especially given the degree to which “A”-1–6 can be read as a single aesthetic & thematic sweep, one that is notably punctuated with Zukofsky’s publication of “A”-7 (“Horses: who will do it?”)[5] as his contribution to the 1931 Objectivist issue of Poetry that he himself edited. I think now that this reading is too simplistic & has as much to do with how I first consumed “A”-1–6 deeply, as the core content of an independent study course I had with Robert Grenier in Berkeley around 1970. Today, I see this rupture between what I might term early & late Zukofsky (or perhaps modern & postmodern LZ) not all at once but over a period of twenty-one years during which Zukofsky’s production wasn’t so much Barely & Widely as it was fits & starts that left him having completed the first dozen passages before setting the project aside for another decade. He picked it up again in 1960, producing nine sections in eight years, adding some 246 pages to the 261 that had taken him twenty-three years earlier on. In these sections, the individual section is quite distinct from any overall surface, the transition is largely complete even if the poem was not. In 1967, Zukofsky set it down again for another three years before picking it up & adding what I still think of as the twin towers of twentieth-century verse, “A”-22 & -23. These passages were composed, it is worth noting, after Celia Zukofsky contributed her arrangement of “A”-24.

“A” is a useful counterpoint to any consideration of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts, not merely because it’s a text I can presume many of the people in this room will have read, or because Zukofsky & DuPlessis share a roughly parallel sense of the longpoem as embodying a (broadly defined) progressive political view of American history, or because they each had a charged, even essential relationship to the poet George Oppen, though in fact all of these are true statements, but rather because Zukofsky at least partly is aware of the degree to which he and his project manifest the crisis of the longpoem that is at the heart of its composition, a consciousness that DuPlessis likewise displays, nowhere better than in the collage poems of Drafts.

Triangulate, for a minute, Olson’s Maximus Poems. Maximus certainly demonstrates the degree to which the Poundian template is the legitimating kernel for the American longpoem. Its great innovation is Maximus himself, with John Berryman’s Henry in Dream Songs or old Prufrock & Mauberly in their eponymous poems at the dawn of modernism, one of a small set of instances of dramatic monologue in the twentieth century that go beyond what is already at least implicit, say, in Browning. Maximus is also the first of the longpoems to attempt to proceed without anything like a firm numbering system. Like The Cantos, however, it’s a text that starts strong & ends wispy, unraveling as it goes, dissolving into palimpsests, ending, as someone once predicted, not with a bang but a whimper.

While I’m not unsympathetic to readings of these works that externalize their struggles with completion, turning them into philosophic life challenges, how possibly to get the Splenda to cohere, it’s irresponsible not to recognize that both Pound & Olson were personally compromised by health challenges, one with mental illness, the other with an addiction to alcohol, that left each without the resources necessary to hold the great ball of crystal high.

Zukofsky, on the other hand, who is never taken seriously by Olson, who is treated condescendingly (at best) by Pound, accomplishes what they cannot. He lives to see “A” complete, and in fact the first published edition of the work as a whole appears in 1978, the year he dies. By then, Zukofsky had already moved on, completing the subsequent 80 Flowers, sketching out further projects, such as 90 Trees & the presumed 101 Dalmatians.

Fits & starts, then, proves capable of achieving what slow & steady did not, at least when leavened with paranoid schizophrenia, as in Pound’s case, or by the quest to see just how much booze it takes to poison a 6’8” frame in Olson’s. Zukofsky may have had his quirks, a germophobe who nonetheless smoked steadily. It would be easy — too easy in fact — to read into either of these contradictory details about LZ a proclivity toward obsessive behavior, since what does not seem in any way obsessive is constructing a longpoem over a forty-six-year period that includes, in five significant chunks, 1931 through 1934, 1941 through 1947, 1952 through 1959, 1961 through 1962, & 1968 & ’69, nineteen years in which Zukofsky — at least if one believes his own annotations — did not work on the project. Put another way, Zukofsky spent over forty-five percent of the forty-six years composing “A” functionally idle, at least with regard to this project.

The table below offers a crude sketch of the timeline of production for “A.”

Pages per year in the production of
“A” by Louis & Celia Zukofsky.

I’m not particularly a size queen — I think it’s conceivable to write a longpoem that is no longer than a sonnet, given the right conditions[6] — and my own experience with The Alphabet was hardly without its own ups & downs. Not writing at times can prove every bit as productive as writing. But presented graphically as an activity, the question that comes immediately to mind is what makes us think that “A” is a poem, at least in the sense of being a continuous integrated work of textual art? It’s at this point that readers could be expected to invoke formal & thematic elements — the phrase “a poem containing a life” can’t be that far from hand — all the way down to the handy rubric of so many creative writing classes: because he says it is.

I’m perfectly content to accept all of the above, even if I note, thematically thinking, that the Stalinist aesthete of “A”-1–6 is a far cry from the liberal Democrat mourning the assassination of JFK in the poem’s final sections, let alone the obsessively proud papa of all the later preening over Paul’s work with the violin.

It’s right about this point that other longpoems, at least within the Poundian tradition, tend to run aground.

Paterson was completed, but then Williams picked it up again, only to sputter out post-stroke.

Paul Blackburn thought to call his endless project Journals, and it unquestionably contains much of his most mature writing, but then he died too soon in September 1971 to know if he would have handled the challenges he was posing himself with such an anti-aesthetic title, or even if he saw it as a single poetic work, rather than as a series of sketches that might later be “finished” into poems.

Robert Duncan merged Passages into the ongoing suite of books that started with The Opening of the Field, although Passages itself didn’t begin until the second volume, Roots and Branches.[7]

When, in a 1974 issue of Maps devoted to Duncan, I noted that neither Passages nor The Structures of Rime, Duncan’s prose poem sequence that has started with the first volume, had ever had books of their own, Duncan penned in the margin of a copy of my piece that “Structures and Passages belong to the books in which they appear!”[8] I wasn’t suggesting that they didn’t, but Duncan’s resistance to separating either out as a distinct text raises in its own fashion the same issue posed by the long blanks in Zukofsky’s timeline. What makes us think that this is a poem? Passages 20 after all is also titled Structure of Rime XXVI. Zukofsky at least offers a clear divide between “A” and the relative snippets of his short poems, the notable exception being “A”-16, which is only four words long, configured into two two-word stanzas or lines half a page apart.

Duncan takes a different tact, consciously blurring borders, continuing both of his sequences into his fifteen-year[9] hiatus from publication, numbering each series up until the moment when both are interrupted by three shorter suites: “The Moly Suite” for Thom Gunn, “Seventeenth Century Suite,” and “Dante Études.” Even though Duncan returns to both sequences in his final book, Ground Work II: In the Dark, he abandons numbering altogether, clustering ten of the twelve Passages identified in that book into a sequence entitled Regulators, followed immediately by The Structure of Rime: Of the Five Songs.[10] I read this to mean that the introduction to the songs is a part of Rime, tho not necessarily any of the “songs” that follow. These in turn are followed by one final unnumbered Passages.[11]

If we look at “A,” if we look at Passages, the question of what constitutes a longpoem, particularly in terms of its boundaries, all but hits us over the head. What makes “A” one poem instead of, say, six — especially once Zukofsky decided to move away from the continuous allover surface of the Poundian project as such[12] — is precisely because Zukofsky says it is, and his saying so sets Occam’s razor to cut in a particular direction. With the possible exception of the open wound that is “A”-24, about which, as previously noted, more anon, the complaints one hears of “A,” hermeticism &/or difficulty, are not of the same order as “it fails to cohere.” In Duncan’s case, one might argue quite the opposite: it refuses to cohere. Or, more to the point (& one element that Duncan’s woven work has in common with DuPlessis’s two collage sequences), one would better phrase it thus: it refuses to obey.

The lyric, to accentuate the contrast, is the poem with boundaries. We know going in that we’re in for forteen lines, for seventeen syllables, whatever it might be. You can see to the end of the poem the instant you turn the page. There is a limit to the amount of mischief one can get into in such circumstances, and a lot of the most exciting work in the short form over the past century & one-half, from Dickinson to Spicer, Armantrout & Grenier, to Bernadette Mayer & Lee Ann Brown, has been one of seeing just how far one might up the ante on that.

If at its core the lyric is the poem as object, not simply the well-wrought urn but one best suited to an end table or mantelpiece, the longpoem is everything the lyric is not — or at least so it at first appears. The problem of the longpoem is precisely one of finding/defining its boundaries. Where is the end of the continent, the ocean, of space or time? You can see why the longpoem is so attractive, say, to someone like Olson. It’s an ideal form for thinking through questions of the frontier. These are, not coincidentally, also cosmological questions: where does the universe end? What stops it? What lies beyond? How do we reach past all that is the case?

It is the challenge presented by all these questions that I believe is the inherent attraction of the longpoem. These issues are what separate, so to speak, the makers from the fakers here. This, for instance, is how the longpoem differentiates itself from the extended lyric, say Berryman’s Dream Songs. If the longpoem were architecture, it might represent an attempt to construct a building taller than any in Doha or Kuala Lumpur, albeit perhaps one that owed as much to the aesthetics of Antoni Gaudi or the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia. The extended lyric, in contrast, is Levittown, or Chesterbrook, or Columbia, Maryland, that potentially infinite suburb with a minimal number of floor plans ready for occupancy now. There is a song by my old neighbor Malvina Reynolds that captures the spirit of the lyric perfectly. It’s titled Little Boxes.

My image of skyscrapers in that last paragraph can and should be read as phallic. If The Cantos are “the Alps,” the contemporary longpoem has long since moved on to the Himalayas. This means almost by definition that the longpoem has largely been a male, if not overtly masculinist form. Of the writers working in the form prior to 1980, the one woman usually mentioned is Hilda Doolittle, who has the unique pedigree of having, at least for one important moment in her career, Ezra Pound as sponsor & promoter. Trilogy, however, is a work of less than 180 pages & three years’ labor. It is no more a longpoem than Briggflatts, a poem that may have taken Basil Bunting a long time to get to, but not to write. In both cases, these are important works that should be read in terms of their specifics, not to bolster a category that might be stronger if they were somehow gerrymandered in.

None of the straight male poets identified here with the first two generations of the longpoem have good feminist records vis-à-vis their relations with women, from Floss to Frances Boldereff. Not that the practitioners of lyric delight did much — or even any — better. But this lines up quite predictably with the idea of the longpoem as a quest. Which is why, looking at the poets of my own generation, it is so intriguing to see that three of the most important longpoems of my era are Beverly Dahlen’s A Reading, Anne Waldman’s The Iovis Trilogy and Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts.

DuPlessis’s debt to the Poundian template is no secret. Her title Drafts, which comes from the first volume of The Cantos, insists on the comparison. Her use of subtitles or title variations for each of the volumes after the first —

Drafts 15–XXX, The Fold
Drafts 1–38, Toll

Drafts 39–57, Pledge, with Draft, Unnumbered: Précis
Torques / Drafts 58–76
Pitch: Drafts 77–95

(tentatively) Surge: Drafts 96–114

invoke Pound’s own use of variations: The Pisan Cantos; Section: Rock-Drill; Thrones.[13] When we consider just how radically the values that DuPlessis promotes in her writing — and her life — differ from those of Pound, the foregrounding of this comparison, much more openly than we find in either Waldman or Dahlen, is worth noting. Waldman is nonetheless quite assertive in her own framing of Iovis and one might — especially if one were a compulsive categorizer — line up longpoems by those who do make aggressive claims — DuPlessis & Waldman as well as Olson & Pound — versus those who deliberately downplay this — Dahlen & Blackburn — versus those who toy with having it both ways — Duncan’s Passages, Ronald Johnson’s ARK, perhaps even Zukofsky’s “A.” DuPlessis’s own description of Anne Waldman might, with a little tweaking for influences, well apply to DuPlessis herself:

Anne Waldman’s work in poetry exists at the intersection of activist passion, gender critique and wariness, and long poem ambitions. She is at root inspired by an Olsonic ambition to speak the whole social fabric as an incantatory, analytic cantor in shamanic voice. She is someone who can inhabit her own culture and play among a multiple of global sites with Blakean transformative lust. She calls us to account whenever she takes the witness stand … [14]

But if the successful completion of the longpoem is, in essence, the literary equivalent of scaling Everest, the evidence of Pound, Olson & Duncan, just for starters, suggests that the experience is more often quite like that grimmer side of Himalayan mountaineering, the 200-plus adventurers whose frozen corpses litter Everest’s slopes.

I know that all of this rests on a series of presumptions, and that these presumptions can be rethought, modified, challenged. Bob Perelman, in The Trouble with Genius, argues that

SPLENDOUR and COHERENCE are, of course, important in Pound’s work as expressions of his desire to produce (total)itarian illumination.[15]

In fact, this is an argument — and I read Drafts as an argument — for just such challenges. But I also think that these presumptions are inscribed — etched — within the Poundian template and that it is the Poundian template & all that it implies that is at issue. The poem containing history, containing a life, proposing itself as prepared to take on, to incorporate whatever the world sends its way, invariably breaks down along that very frontier. It is fascinating to think of what enters into the poem, not as new information, but rather as contamination — what is it about each of these poems that when something enters in that is in any way unanticipated, it sends them careening out of control, acting as an entropy principle for Olson or Pound, causing great gaps in “A” not to mention that most lurid — because most capricious & arbitrary — of conclusions, “A”-24.

Let’s consider “A”-24. I’m sure that Bob Perelman, who has organized and participated in performances of this aural collage, could describe it with much greater precision than I’m about to here. It was, to go by the timeline as given by LZ, cobbled together by Celia after her husband completed work on Rudens, itself a suspicious interloper into the scheme of “A,” the lone section penned by Louis after 14 that does not begin with — function as a part of — An, the latter movement of “A.” Zukofsky’s translation of Plautus’s play either was or was not a part of “A,” but at least it was composed at the end of Zukofsky’s four-year burst of activity in the mid-1960s.

“A”-24 was presented to Zukofsky as L.Z. Masque & incorporates five parallel lines that blend, awkwardly at best, into a choral montage, spoken & never sung, of Zukofsky’s own writing over a backdrop of Handel’s harpsichord pieces. Only one of four lines of text comes from “A,” the others derived from his critical writing, drama & fiction. It is Zukofsky himself who decides to position the masque as “A”-24, & then to fill in the gaps with “A”-22 & 23, both of which adhere to the convention of An, each beginning with that preposition.

But imagine for a moment what “A” would be without that “magic” Homeric requirement of the number twenty-four. If Rudens, the twin towers & L.Z. Masque are separate projects, then “A” as a poem is a very different work of art. It is, for one thing, more completely a poem, less battered & invaded by the drama of Plautus or Handel’s harpsichord. It’s quieter, ultimately, ending on the brief response to a performance by Paul at twenty. Musically this all works quite well, and musically is exactly what motivated Zukofsky to put that section of An, written in 1963, in the twentieth position before going on to compose “A”-14, 15, 18, or 19.

Once one begins down this road, any number of options becomes possible, even plausible. Imagine, for example, the poem created if L.Z. Masque is dropped, 80 Flowers is inserted as “A”-22 & the twin towers are each pushed back one position. Again, a much more unified overall experience. But — not unlike Robert Duncan furiously taking exception to my suggestions for Passages & The Structure of Rime — not what Zukofsky was seeking.

There is a distinction here to be drawn between that which is outside the initial purview of the work that can be incorporated easily into it. Rudens is a conceivable example, although it might also be an instance of the second type of invasion into the work, which L.Z. Masque most definitely represents, that which enters in without anticipation. Pound in The Cantos sought to bring in material from outside, from beyond the normal range of the typically poetic, first with economics and with other languages, especially Chinese ideograms. What he did not anticipate was that the archetypal poet of the typewriter would be thrown into a wire cage in the mud at Pisa & forced to write by hand literally on toilet paper. Yet The Pisan Cantos are the best thing he ever wrote.

The Russian Formalists were the first to note that literature — indeed, art in general — had an element of imperialism to it: it seeks always to expand what might be possible to include, that the work of art be better able to engage the world as we find it. But for writers of the longpoem, this divides into two or three separate categories:

The world as we found it, as we began writing
The world as we invited it in, incorporating new materials
The world as it forced itself upon us

The longer the longpoem, as time congealed labor, the greater the opportunity for all three categories of materials to enter in.

It is here that I think we can begin reading “Draft 94: Mail Art” and its companion, “Draft CX: Primer.” DuPlessis not only invokes Pound in her poem’s title, she makes it inescapably clear at the outset that she is willing to put herself up against all comparisons. “Draft 1: It” begins with two single capital letters, each punctuated by a period so that they might be read as abbreviations or as sentences. That each is “N” echoes, maybe even puns the Zukofskian An. This is followed immediately by a pair of hand-drawn capital Ns, interlocked, one larger than the other, giving an effect of a mountain range (the Alps?). This in turn is followed by a section divider, a pair of equal signs, which may or may not be a wink in the direction of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine & my own cohort of writers.[16] You might also, if you were inclined as I, see in that first peak of the larger N an echo there of an A, not just a further hint of the Zukofskian An, but of the idea of an Alpha Bet, the Roman written character as a medium for poetry perhaps not as divorced from the natural world as we might imagine.

The graphic — which is to say the written, the printed, the scrawled — is a persistent theme in Drafts. Each of the first eight Drafts is in some way altered or invaded by this “extra-linguistic” information, such as we’ve just seen:

Draft 2, She: words typed in pairs or threes not quite on top of one another. Often the words alter one another just enough for us to hear them as alternate readings: stains/stairs, rise/rinse, better/bitter. The section dividers in 2 are a pair of carets — ^^ — with a period between them one line lower, not quite a Kilroy-was-here echo of a face.
Draft 3, Of: As noted above, the long bracket along the left margin with the sideways all-caps command: CUT.
Draft 4, In: A significant portion of the text in the last third of this four-page poem are suddenly in boldface. Even more than the overtyping of Draft 2, this text feels like what DuPlessis in that earlier section called a “Shadow under word.”
Draft 5, Gap: Blocks of text literally blackened out, rather in the manner of my FBI files, redacted.
Draft 6, Midrush: A single crudely scrawled — and incomplete — circle in the middle of a passage that alludes to the rings of smoke sent her way by

Wraithes of poets, Oppen and oddly
renew their open engagement with me
wreathing smoke-veils
my eyescreen tearing their insistent
opaque, startled
writing was speaking here was
saying words but,
befit a shady station,
were swallowed up within the
mouths speaking
and all the words
dizzy with tears
passed again away.

I hear here not merely the Hassidic Midrash but the rush of a literal fraternity, the younger woman at risk in a den of men. Nor can I read that scrawled O or this passage without thinking of Elsa Dorfman’s iconic photographs of Zukofsky smoking.

Draft 7, Me: The old hieroglyphic eye one associates with Olson & Ed Sanders.
Draft 8, The: Lines and stanzas, mostly starting to the right half of the page, that appear in 5½-point roman type.

The first section that doesn’t have some sort of graphic intervention turns out to be Draft 9: Page, which in turn is followed by Draft X: Letters, the first to use a Roman numeral (Draft XXX, again alluding to Pound, will likewise), and the first of Drafts alphabet sections.

Once you begin to see just how much of Drafts engages the act of the mark upon paper, upon papyrus, upon canvas, the question — not at all unlike Robert Grenier’s quest to identify that moment in cognition when the word “pops” into consciousness — of the edge of legibility, of articulation turns up everywhere. The very next Draft after Letters is Schwa:

The “unsaid” is a shifting boundary
resisting even itself.
Something, the half-sayable,
goes speechless. Or it can’t
and Inbetween
                            what is, and
                            that it is,
is ə Inside
…… an offhand
sound, a howe or swallowed
shallow. Sayable Sign
of the un-.

The opening couple of Draft 15: Little, a title right from Zukofsky:

More than that is hard to say.
I am drawing a blank.

Or of Draft 19: Working Conditions:

This kind of speaking
doubles the unspeakable.

Or the opening of Draft XXX: Fosse:

Imagine a book, a little book,
       whose words are covered
                        one by one
with the smallest pebbles —
                        fossils imprinted, shale splinters,
slag and gnarls from fossick,
                        cheap sweepings arrayed,
a road of morse lines
       step by step
                        down the page.
It looks like poetry, runs along depths
       on the surface, slugs
                        of a text that is lost;
the instruction it offers
       is delicate,
                        maybe misplaced.
The words and their syntax
                        not to nothing
                        (for the lover of pebbles)
but to an irradiating splayed out
                        so large
it can only be
       marked thus:
+ It could say erosion of the book.[17]

Somewhere between the composition of Draft XXX & 38: Georgics and Shadow, DuPlessis appears to have come upon the most idiosyncratic of its many dimensions, a grid of nineteen such that the poem could be said to cycle through stages, or that sections might be read horizontally as well as vertically, somewhat akin to Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch. Thus Draft XXX: Fosse — I presume that the title refers at least as much to the town in the Pyrenees as it does to the choreographer — is on the same line as Schwa, and that this description of an artist’s book by Ann Hamilton speaks not just to the erosion of the book, but of the speakable as well.[18]

Grid of Drafts, June 2011 [click to enlarge].

This is to say that I don’t think that the grid was there in the beginning, but that its presence has been active from a certain moment forward, not unlike Zukofsky’s shift from “A” to An. Exactly what that moment is, I don’t know. There is an investigation worth the effort, I believe, in looking at how individual works relate one to the next horizontally as well as vertically, especially differentiating between the first two passes through the grid and the next four. One strategy for this reading would be to start along the spine, the so-called line of five, Drafts 5, 24, 43, 62, 81 & 100.

Mail Art & Primer enter into Drafts in the fifth and sixth passes through the cycle of nineteen, but not at the same moment. They add one element, color, that is not reproducible in most editions of poetry and we’re exceptionally fortunate that the Pew Foundation made a publication grant available for a volume that was able to produce both in full color. But it makes me wonder precisely what dimensions we might come up against should Drafts continue through seventh, eighth or even nineteen passes through the rule of nineteen.

For this is exactly where Drafts diverges from The Cantos, Maximus or “A” — their conceptions of bringing everything into the poem is predicated on maintaining an anticipatory cohesion throughout the work, something neither Pound or Olson could maintain & that Zukofsky achieved only by changing the rules & accepting compromises as he went forward. Drafts has been built from the beginning at exploring precisely not just the frontier of literature but of literacy itself, spoken, written, thought. And it has done so from the very first letters of the poem.

Mail Art[19] is a cycle of thirty-eight (19x2) collages/visual poems that invoke the Fluxus-era phenomenon whose best known practitioner was Ray Johnson. While Fluxus had a strong — sometimes overwhelming — air of nostalgia for the work of Dada some four decades earlier, mail art rather uniquely was a genre rooted in the 1960s. Whereas a urinal in a museum always foregrounds the museum — its content is its context — mail art often (tho not always) went through the post, meaning that institutional constraints as to size & even content came into play. What mail art took from the history of photography was not so much the image — it looked to the collage of Cubism more for that, combined with an iconography & humor it shared with Pop Art — but the size of the snapshot, and especially the postcard. Mail art could not have existed in an era in which postcards did not exist — it required them to have arrived at a certain pervasive decadence that simply did not exist until after the Second World War.

The very first thing one notices, reading DuPlessis’s Mail Art, is that very little of this could ever go through the mail directly. Mail Art is not mail art, at least not directly. Rather, it is a series of collages that incorporate language, and that invoke art history through allusion to Ray Johnson et al.[20] In her introduction, DuPlessis rightly characterizes them as “collages and poems.”

It is worth noting here that Mail Art falls on the line of eighteen, where the initial poem is Traduction, the task not so much of the translator as the translated. 37: Praedelle, a term that appears exactly zero times on the entire Internet, a poem that largely follows an ABCB rhyme scheme, and which includes the fabulous stanza

So I loaded the riffs
with terrific zaum
Itched thru the night
wandered the Raum

in which the German term for space forces me retroactively to hear the first person singular in Itched, not to mention the riffs in terrific.

Bildungsgedicht with Apple, Drafts 56, is that relatively rare Draft that actually includes prose. It includes some of the most direct aesthetic statements in the entire longpoem:

                This poem is not you. Except as if you are
                yourself in doubt. The poem is doubt itself made evident …
                nothing I say can give the feel of it.
No words, no verbs, no sentences.

75 is, to my mind, the bravest & most “out there” of all the Drafts to date, in some ways even more than the collage poems, since it is Doggerel, perhaps the most literal of all DuPlessis’s titles.

So I’ll just rattle on with grotesque textuality
straining the leash of your vexed liberality,
pretending a wide-eyed, cute subjectivity,
oblivious to badness — and to my proclivity.

Doggerel, both big & small d, in some ways poses the challenge at the heart of flarf better than flarf itself does. Flarf is traditionally — if one can already speak of flarf as a tradition — about the expansion of what is possible in poetry through writing deliberately awful poetry using found materials. Yet what is outside the pale at one moment is well within a moment later. Michael Magee’s use of Internet descriptions of Angie Dickinson poured into the molds of Emily Dickinson’s verse in My Angie Dickinson was shocking when it first appeared in journals or (especially) when Zasterle brought it out in 2007. But in a world in which Vanessa Place tells her students at Naropa to bring back a transcribed page of something from the “real world” with no framing, no modification save the transcription itself, and to do this same assignment every single day of a week’s workshop, Magee’s brilliant aestheticism seems to be just that: aesthetic for the sake of aesthetic.

Doggerel, precisely because it’s bad already inside the circle of the literary, is a bad that can stay bad, even as it says important things. Its excess stays excessive in a way that Angie Dickson’s does not & that excess is the actual content of the poem.

In just this way, Mail Art feels more tentative than Primer. It includes, as in the thirty-sixth of its thirty-eight pieces, some of the most direct and important writing in Drafts:

Contrast this sense of the boundary between the legitimate & the un-scene, ur-new in DuPlessis with these lines from the second of Jack Spicer’s poems for Poetry Chicago:

Pieces of the past arising out of the rubble. Which evokes Eliot and
             then evokes Suspicion. Ghosts all of them. Doers of no
The past around us is deeper than. (Spicer)

Primer, on the other hand, lies on the line of fifteen, whose antecedents include Little, Recto, Eclogues, Nanifesto & Proverbs. These earlier sections often have to do with smallness, with heritage, even youth. Eclogues is dedicated to Rachel’s daughter Koré Simone DuPlessis — fifteen is likewise the line that most thoroughly explores what tradition means to a secular Jew. Unlike Mail Art, the writing in Primer — and it’s there if you look — doesn’t exist alongside the visual so much as it emerges through it, often quite marginal. Primer is yet another alphabet and the section M here —

— is as much about line & shape as it is any normally linguistic quality, even as it argues (persuasively to my eye) for the linguistic dimension of the line, even as it curls, even should it be wool thread. The section L immediately preceding this is an old shopping list with handwritten items crossed out, save for the circled word check plus three small slips of paper — they look like Chinese fortune cookies that read: Such a lot to do, thus / longen folk to goon / on pilgrimages.

It is in this sense, right at the edge of the written, of writing, that I take the collage poems to be in many ways the sections closest to being a core thematic statement for the whole of Drafts. I am not kidding in the slightest when I say that I think that M could be the topic sentence for the entire project. Unlike much that today calls itself asemic writing, DuPlessis demonstrates/explores that such marks upon paper are never without meaning.

In many ways, Rachel Blau DuPlessis has always struck me as being the antithesis of my late good friend Hannah Weiner. Hannah was a realist in an irrational world. Rachel is a rationalist — there is hardly a surrealist phrase in her corpus — who is completely committed to exploring that razor edge where language becomes something else, whatever that may be. Drafts in this sense may be the first anti-teleological longpoem. Where Pound & Olson & even I think Duncan began their work with some sense of where they were headed, so much so that each project wrecked upon the rock shore of the unanticipated, where Zukofsky’s attempt proves more successful only at the cost of some extraordinary convolutions/concessions in its final four sections, DuPlessis’s Drafts begins more with questions than answers, literally in Draft 1 chasing a bird in the bush, sensing that the right answers need to be further questions.


September 30–October 21, 2011
Buffalo and Paoli



1. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “Afterimage,” Temblor 4 (1986): 19–22.

2. DuPlessis, “Draft 8: The and Draft #9: Page,” Abacus (1989).

3. DuPlessis, Drafts (Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets, 1991).

4. A phrase that consciously invokes Wordsworth’s Prelude & the military history of European geography as well as any air of the monumental.

5. Louis Zukofsky, “A” (New York: New Directions, 2011).

6. My test, to echo Zukofsky’s paraphrase of Marx, is time congealed labor. With current levels of technology, it requires very little effort to produce a work that is merely lengthy. But one can imagine, without too much difficulty, someone like the Ponge of Notebook of the Pine Woods continuing the effort to construct a perfect sonnet beyond the months he was required to hide out from the Nazis.

7. Robert Duncan, The Opening of the Field (New York: Grove Press / Evergreen Review, 1960); Roots and Branches (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964).

8. See Robert Duncan, “Robert Duncan’s notes on Ron Silliman’s “Opening,’” Jacket2 (December 2011); and Ron Silliman, “Opening,” Maps (1974): 72–80.

9. 1969–1984.

10. Robert Duncan, Ground Work II: In the Dark (New York: New Directions, 1987).

11. Dates given in Ground Work II suggest that only the book’s final poem, “After a Long Illness,” may have been composed after the first volume of Ground Work and that Duncan may have written no verse during the last six or seven years of his life, save that one piece. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

12. A decision Duncan never made with Passages, although one might argue that that is exactly what distinguishes it from The Structure of Rime.

13. DuPlessis, Drafts 15–XXX, The Fold (Berkeley, CA: Potes and Poets, 1997); Drafts 1–38, Toll (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001); Drafts 39–57, Pledge, With Draft, Unnumbered: Précis (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2004); Torques / Drafts 58–76 (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2007); Pitch: Drafts 77–95 (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2010).

14. DuPlessis, “Anne Waldman: Standing Corporeally in One’s Time,” Jacket 27 (2005).

15. Bob Perelman, The Trouble with Genius: Reading Pound, Joyce, Stein and Zukofsky (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

16. One could perform a reading of Drafts built out of the nature of each piece’s choice of section dividers, that mute & arbitrary symbol that is revealed by DuPlessis to be completely articulate. See DuPlessis, “Draft 1: It” and “Draft 2: She,” Temblor 5 (1987): 22–33.

17. Note the section divider (+) right at the start of the line.

18. I have a theory on this, that the early publication of Drafts 15–XXX, The Fold makes evident that the grid of nineteen was not yet in play when that volume came out in 1997, even tho its constituent or orienting element — the repetition of the fifth poem in each column or iteration of the sequence having the identical title of Gap — had begun. Clearly when DuPlessis came to this the third time in Draft 43, the grid was inescapable.

19. The pun on male art is inescapable and clearly intentional.

20. Johnson is quoted on page 6 and named on page 24 of The Collage Poems of Drafts (Cambridge, UK: Salt, 2011).