Witness Hannah Weiner

Some precursors to the visual prosody of 'clair-style' writing

The southern New Critics bequeathed to generations of American English students a reductive but serviceable distillation of poetics into versification, fickly defining prosody as according to an obviously conservative set of lyric values. But “the new criticism” was a phrase coined by Joel Spingarn, whose impressionistic depiction of poetry carried little of the taxonomic and finally deadening thrust of “close reading.” Close reading had to do with hearing (the inner voice) and looked at a page only closely enough to take a strictly alphabetic set of cues. This kind of inspection could be quickly learned and reading poetry thereby could be easily tested. An empathic reading was a right one, but it worked on a notoriously narrow scope of examples. On the far side of New Critical rigor, upon seeing the 1913 Armory Show, Spingarn’s enthusiasm led him to rehearse a wrong-headed but well-intentioned celebration of “essential madness” as “essential truth,” “fancy’s eternal contrast with the common sense of a practical world.” Beyond such a Romantic account, what 1913 has come to represent now is an infiltration into the very idea of art. What infiltrated was a generic “modern” aesthetic that would exhaust itself in under four years, and in its death throes a radical critique was hatched. This would be the 1917 submission of Duchamp’s Fountain for the Society of Independents. Thierry de Duve has recently dated the “art-in-general system” to follow, which ceded to a condition that had been forecast by the collapse of the beaux-arts system in France much earlier, curatorial expertise. And with it went the artist’s supposedly extraordinary access to eternal verities, the myth which, in poetry, Poe and Baudelaire so eloquently turned into a socio-critical engine still sputtering somewhere in the maudit tradition. Capitalist “democracy” demonstrates nothing less than the singular fact of brutality and cynicism at the heart of modern humanism, and who better to make that diagnosis than the aesthete, whose critical distance we no longer excuse from direct participation in its subject(s). Jean-Marie Gleize, on Arthur Rimbaud, is particular good on this topic. Meanwhile, art-in-general might keep its promise—in de Duve’s words, “everything is a legitimate candidate for the status of art.” Under what conditions this might be a valid statement was exactly the question in which first wave conceptual art had a most solemn stake. And this is evident not least from its denigration of the image and its recourse to text. This is not to say that everyone is a legitimate candidate for the status of artist, pace the Independents. And so, despite ubiquitous practical considerations, neither are we all a little mad at heart.

I think of the way the everyday was legitimated in those few years when conceptual art was still hinged to New York School poetics, a brief but telling moment if it is the immediate and logical predecessor to what Hannah Weiner called her “clair-style” period. Weiner’s clairvoyance meant, as per Spingarn, “seeing in the poet’s ‘madness’ not something for the physician to diagnose,” but a “creative flowering of their own personalities.” Weiner, we know, was interested in the “other person,” maybe even the person-in-general system. And as conceptual art is born with the readymade and cut through the everyday mystique of “the poet” to disinter an “art condition,” Weiner’s wry blend of tropes native to conceptual art in her late 1960s work, even before she claims “I SEE WORDS,” will presume a visual prosody that is both “non-retinal” and that short circuits any close reading.

Clairvoyant writing was the term Weiner gave to the work leading up to her 1978 book and studio recording of Clairvoyant Journal. Weiner was writing journals, diaries of a sort, throughout the early 70s, and when she began to see auras and words in 1972, she invented a literary form, “clair-style” writing, to depict her experiences (see BIG SENSIBLE for more on this topic). These experiences and even her response might be dismissed as lunacy or enjoyed as fantasy, but her readers are often fascinated by her eventual command, aesthetically, over her materials. We are just beginning to see the extent to which her pre-clairvoyant work as an artist, curator, and writer might cause us to reconsider demarcating clair-style writing from her conceptual and performance work. Clairvoyance might be as pluriform as her concerns were consistent over a thirty year career. Yet designating herself “clairvoyant” conflates telling and being told, the fortune teller’s prophetic judgment and those judgments that indelibly pronounce us to be another thing. Diagnoses and criminal convictions work this way; Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called them “incorporeal transformations.” I think it is not a stretch to say that prosody works this way, if you look at it as an overheard vision. Let’s be serious: in a poem, I see end rhyme before it reveals itself as such, and really only if I later manage to utter it aloud. Prosody speaks my voice as I look upon words and orders it so. Mission accomplished; mystery solved. Is the phrase “visual prosody” only redundant?

Consider Weiner’s contribution to the Spring 1969 publication of Tape Poems, an anthology edited by the Brazilian conceptual artist Eduardo Costa and the New York poet and art critic John Perreault, and published on reel-to-reel tape. Echoing conceptual art’s challenge to the ontological status of the artwork, the editors claim that tape poems “exist completely in terms of aural phenomenon, rather than in terms of visual systems of signs, thus beginning a new art of the tape recorder that has in common with written literature the fact that it refers to real language.” Reality adheres to tape poems in a way that phonograph records or attending a live lecture cannot because “a tape recording can be easily erased, edited and re-recorded.” Hence the word “publication” appears in scare quotes. With tape (not language) as “this new medium” they presume to “regain for ‘literature’ [also in scare quotes] tones of voice, pitch, and the other characteristics of spoken language that are lost … to the printed word. These nuances are linguistically relevant, since they can indicate age, sex, class, geographical origin and emotional state of the speaker.” Importantly, they write  “linguistically relevant” rather than aesthetically relevant—marking such pragmatic ramifications for the materials pre-expressive/pre-indicative/merely lexical, before such words graduate to the status of “medium.” It is as though words must be a priori unseen. The “plane” of “written literature” is to the “space” of “aural literature” just as language is to aesthetic value. The values and analogies at play here will resurface several years later when Weiner typographically cues the audio recording of the Clairvoyant Journal, though also issues a book of the score as reading material. Authorial control over the reified phenomenal character of linguistic experience is another virtue named by the editors; “when we play a tape we have sound as in the original phonic language.” They will qualify this so as to preserve the status of medium for the tape itself, hence the authority of the dispositif as well: “The tape recorder is already as necessary as the typewriter.”

Weiner’s recording is the last of thirteen tracks compiled, and it is entitled “Three Poems.” UBU Web’s audio file is in mono, but I have acquired a stereo version, which is crucial to understanding Weiner’s hilarious but harrowing critique of first wave conceptualism. Lewis Warsh’s “Halloween” precedes “Three Poems.” And like other pieces on Tape Poems, it is essentially a literary recital overlaid with sound effects and music. Dan Graham’s “’Foams’ plus Fill” layers an affectless glossary of landscaping and engineering terms with a number by Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons, like a companion piece to his famous Homes for America, equally reminiscent of the overall tonality of Robert Smithson’s “Monuments of Passaic…” as transposed from type to tape. Urban field recordings are used in Joseph Coravalo’s contribution, titled “poems and background”. Warsh’s piece is a classic example of New York School I-do-this-I-do-that, but late in the recital of his holiday peregrinations, he wakes up again at the same time on what must be a very similar day given the two simultaneous recountings converge on the whereabouts of “Anne”—a character in the poem we take to be Anne Waldman whose “Three Minutes of My Life” precedes “Halloween." Given Weiner’s “Three Poems” begins with “poem two,” Warsh’s poem cleaves to the pieces flanking it and thus constitutes the one, if not the first.

Prose transcription of Hannah Weiner’s “Three Poems”:

Poem two. The problem: measure and document the results of the process of translation from an invisible to an inaudible phenomenon. The solution: the relative motion of invisible cold air moving down and invisible hot air moving up introduces turbulence. This turbulence produces inaudible sound which may be measured and recorded by a pressure transducer. Example: [several seconds silence]

Poem three. Helium and krypton. [In high-pitched, helium voice.] Helium, atomic number two. Atomic weight 4.003. Neutron number one. Ground state spin quantum number one half. Mass excess 15.817. Cosmic abundance 3.08 x 10 to the ninth power. [Audible click: tape splice or tape speed adjustment. Voice pitch and speed lowered.] Krypton, atomic number thirty six. Atomic weight 83.80. Neutron number 40. Mass excess -47.6. Cosmic abundance 51.3 per ten to the sixth power. Atom of elemental silicon. [Click. Return to normal pitch and speed.]
[audio via PennSound: MP3

Poem four, part one: the sound of an object in one dimensional motion along a line from A to B. [Sound of jet plane passing.] Part two: the sound of an object in one dimensional motion along a line from B to C. [Identical sound.] Part three: the sound of an object in one dimensional motion along a line from C to D. [Identical sound.] Part five: speed racer. [Race cars passing—fourth car pitch and amplitude level out as though we jump cut to the interior of the vehicle. Three seconds of steady engine noise, abrupt cut to silence.]

Poem two offers a first solution to the conflation of medium and dispositif: thermodynamic registration that is apparently internal to its terms because imperceptible but not private—i.e. the transducer doesn’t mean the phenomenon is privy to anyone or anything special. The exclusion proves the ruler. A little alchemy comprises the second solution, as well as an unmistakable pantomime of conceptualist neutrality, all conveyed by a hilarious send up of the editors’ seductive promise of mutability and recombination. Dark humor: the third solution unceremoniously fulfills that promise with a spectral pitch shift and gradual passage between left and right channels, the trajectory of jet engines or combustion motors producing the Doppler effect. In fact the two are rudimentarily staggered by comparison. The redundancy of lines between A, B, C and D is redoubled by the difference between center (driver’s seat) and periphery (the bleachers) represented by “speed racer.” The cartoonish last line of the poem is not the last line of the tape. Sound effects constitute a non-linguistic “line.” This then reasserts the medium by topping out and leveling off a static acceleration that is then terminated in what we experience as the internal or centrifugal splice, which complements the external or manual sound we overheard in poem three.

When I described the critical thrust of “Three Poems” as harrowing as well as hilarious, my sense of the former comes from the sheer gravitas of the problem which adjoins formally to the discrepancies between the number of solutions and the problem as defined. Simply put, the poem is insufficient. The voice of the poem is already dispersed amongst its coordinates: there is Warsh’s preamble and there is virtually the rest of the selections, each being in some ways cognates of each other, and finally coming in last in the sequence of tracks. I tend to mistakenly think of it as "Four Poems" assuming the first was cut and the whole retitled "Three Poems," the piece beginning in situ with "Halloween" and as a bridge back to side one. When Warsh recites a guest list, the final line of “Halloween” is “then Ted leaves,” effectively terminating two accounts of a single day. Silence. But Weiner’s track asks, what does a line of poetry quantify when it could itself be a sound?

We know to measure and document a spate of time is spatio-temporally impossible. Habit has been to refer to tendencies, which can be charted, as though they were fait accompli. This is something the ancients discovered and Einstein or Bergson codified when attempting to access time via motion. The problem as defined here, again, is “measure and document the results of the process of translation from an invisible to an inaudible phenomenon.” Inasmuch as visibility and audibility raise a terminus or difference in kind between space and time, a continuum is discovered beneath them which, in being apportioned, abruptly vanishes. “Three Poems” is a realization of insufficiency in the comic sense of interdependence acknowledged and enjoyed, but also in the tragic sense of isolation and fatal deserts. Importantly, what is being measured and documented are “the results of the process.” No translation is possible, yet novelty is ever ready. The experiment is brought to a silently crashing halt.  

What do we look at when we listen to poetry? Probably pages. At worst, a poet looking at them. Another question for both, what do we see there?

As a series of manually wrought pages, Clairvoyant Journal can be read on an admittedly imperfect analogy with manual languages and ASL literature. Weiner herself published a piece called “Sign Language of the American Indian” the year after Tape Poems appeared. Here she translates the captions which translate ASL into a short poem. Though in sentiment less biting or ironic than the Code Poems composed, exhibited and performed two years earlier, “Sign Language of the American Indian” follows logically from her interest in “simultaneous equivalents.” In a process note published in 0-9 in 1968, Weiner’s sphere of reference runs from ECT, LSD, and particle physics to accentuations and effectuations of linguistic and neurological difference. But in “Sign Language of the American Indian,” right on the cusp of the clairvoyant phenomena, Weiner is already distilling these concerns into Yogic and Native American tropes: “Breathed from the great spirit, / one, an example, I, / cross my heart, / love you. / Hannah Weiner.” There is the signature, the guarantee as palindromic redemption—often you’d find her using the nickname, “sis.” At the center of sis, the integer “i” or first person, here with all due respect “one, an example,” hence the formality of the full name. Can we say that there is a double-othering going on here? Or should we grant this gesture is less ethnocentric or ableist than it is an acknowledgment that at that very moment of signification, that flash of simultaneous equivalents, the other is always already present, doubly captured in an affective expression that, splicing off the eyes of our talking head, talks itself into speaking to the other?

Citing Jacques Derrida’s assertion that phonocentric left-to-right scripting routines constitute the “original…ethnocentrism,” H-Dirksen Bauman’s analysis of the poetic “line” in ASL poetry is germane here. To establish an insightful poetic line as one formal trait of Deaf culture literary practice, Bauman develops a “cine-poetics” based on embodied scales on analogy with the frame of a cinematic shot as well as the kinetic flow of events within the scene. The “movement path” of ASL vanishes instantly; he calls this a “transformation line.” It is precisely this line that Weiner breaks at least three ways in “Sign Language of the American Indian.” Call it a reverse kineticism, a set of representative poses, duly captioned, glibly riffing off of a pair of imagined yet impassive ethnic marks. It’s like a flip book and printed as such in the journal in which it appeared, Richard Kostelanetz’s Assembling. However, in 1970, Weiner begins fasting in response to the onset of hallucinatory experiences that will over the next several years resolve themselves into the Clairvoyant Journal, as though she realizes at this juncture that continuous incongruency can be used like a form of concrete autosuggestion when the de-versed sign is re-versed by the eye’s movement between image, caption, etc.


CLICK TO ENLARGE. Images of Hannah Weiner's papers Courtesy of the Mandeville Special Collections Library, University of California, San Diego, where the poet's papers are archived. Weiner's work is published here by permission of Charles Bernstein, for Hannah Weiner in trust.

Weiner thematized the “original ethnocentrism” of the line and the compossibility of presence in the signature of the machine. Reference points include “Returning to the Edge,” a clairvoyant poem using script trajectory as a vehicle for another vehicle, the political left and right. There is also a letter sent by Hopi Elders of the Hotevilla Village in September, 1982, seeking entree to the United Nations to speak of wisdom and prophecy on behalf of “Great Spirit” or “Creator.” Hopi legend prophesized the creation of a “House of Mica” in the east where leaders would assemble in peace to work through disputes and coordinate a sustainable future. The Elders extend an invitation to U.N. delegates to visit their community and witness their way of life. Signed by the elders, Weiner’s copy of the document includes her signature, “Hannah thesame Weiner.” Hannah sis Weiner, “thesame” refers on one level to the palindromic milieu of language and experience, her identification with the putative hosts and guests. She is on the “eastern edge of our land”—down the street from the House of Mica when she signs. She countersigns. On another level, this is a counter offer in the tradition of Duchamp. The signature also brings to mind the work of Fluxus artist Ben Vautier, who signed just about anything with the diminutive “Ben.”

Much of the drama of clairvoyant writing, and especially the struggle to find the form for the journal itself, comes from the effort Weiner made to restore a presumed isomorphic relation between looking and reading. That is, “clair-style” is predicated on the desire for an adequate pair of nonsemantic (but legible) sightings and recoded (interpretable) lexical values. The relation of looking to reading must have a logic that only visual prosody captures. Hence, the assumed reliance of writing on being a seer, or at least having an imagination. In the end, impossible. In 2007 Alan Davies recalled riding “seated next to Hannah Weiner in the back of James Sherry’s car. I asked Hannah why she wrote—she said—Because I see words—and asked me why I wrote. I said something about wanting to help other people or words to that effect. Hannah said—Humpty Dumpty.” In 2001’s Angel Hair Anthology, Warsh figured that the “reality” of “the person writing” Weiner’s clair-style texts “approaches a version of what the gift of sanity is all about.” Function and disfunction share space in what cognitivists call multistability, another rendering, as far as I’m concerned, of what Wittgenstein called “aspect blindness” and illustrated by a duck-rabbit. The truly ambiguous is what is seen relative to the sentence to which it belongs. But in Clairvoyant Journal, the seen words stop short: “STOP THE SENTENC.” They also, of course, disrupt readers, as they interject while Weiner composes the page, providing a running commentary. Weiner says she writes because she sees words. But causation is not logical. It is evolutionary, not dialectic. So much for that isomorphic fit. Just as medium and dispositif blur, her purpose as clairvoyant, to heal by soliciting belief, was frustrated. Are there sane words to say so? If sanity depends on a specific subject and its expression on a specific object, given the impossibility of medium specificity apart from typographic dispositif, there is no epistemological difference in Clairvoyant Journal. Read, listen and watch. When read aloud on the New Wilderness Audiographics cassette, Weiner’s prefatory remarks end with an accent on the subject of the statement: “I begins.” In her 1978 appearance on Public Access Poetry, a New York cable access television program, it concludes, “I read myself.”