Ted Pearson in conversation with Luke Harley
November 25, 2010, to September 6, 2011
Note: The following is the second (and concluding) part of a larger conversation examining Ted Pearson’s An Intermittent Music, a serial work begun in 1975 and completed in 2010. The first half appeared in Jacket2 and can be read here.
Luke Harley: Ron Silliman has resisted attempts to label your work as “minimalist,” instead arguing that it is “all about how much pressure you can exert on a few select words or lines.” Do you agree with Ron?
Ted Pearson: Yes. Resemblance is not identity, though it can lead to mistaken identity. As applied to poetry, a “minimalist” tag refers to texts that are formally spare and verbally concise — but those features are common to such a disparate range of works that to remark them is obvious and does little to account for significant aesthetic differences among those works. Yet those differences determine a work’s relation to the “restricted economy” that the label implies. In my work, that relation is essentially oppositional.
In music, minimalism’s features are historically more determinate; they mark a turn to the use of limited materials, simpler forms, consonant tonality, and repetition — in part as a reaction to the increasing complexity and perceived impenetrability of postwar serial music. That turn and that reaction run counter to my poetics. While there are minimalist composers whose works I much enjoy, especially Riley and Adams, in practice I’m committed to serial approaches to structure and temporality.
It is only with regard to visual art and design that my work shares some historical affinities with minimalism. Both are critical of expressive form, and both have been influenced by Suprematism, Constructivism, the Bauhaus, and de Stijl — but they diverge in what they have taken from and subsequently made of those influences. For but one example, by focusing on the quiddity of its “bare essentials,” minimalist art achieves a state that Zukofsky calls “a rested totality” — a Euclidian objectification of timeless, ostensibly stable forms whose equilibrium, though compelling in its own right, I see in relation to the mobility of concepts as an “arrested totality.”
On the other hand, whatever formal balance my work achieves is both transient and dependent on resisting stasis. Its economy stems from the layering and compression of its diverse materials — which, under pressure, produce an “excess” of meaning — not from their radical reduction to “fundamentals” as the economy of minimalism requires. It isn’t so much the quiddity of a text that interests me, but the flux of contingent relations within and among its constitutive elements. That inherent instability is reflected in the poems’ use of sentential gaps, phonological variations, and shifts in linguistic register, which, taken together, serve to disrupt univocal meaning.
The “select words or lines” Ron points to are members of the sets qua poems to which they belong, even as those sets are members of a finite series. When we isolate elements of a text for analysis, we must do so in light of its total syntax, which warrants but does not foreclose on their interpretability. Such elements contribute to, and — in their part/whole relation to it — can significantly alter in unexpected ways the meaning of a text. But their occurrence, with regard to their frequency and location, and their significance with regard to the text as such, are neither predictable nor predictive. Happily not, I would say.
Harley: The compression you speak of also entails a vast amount of material being left out (what you, in Part I, called the “not-said”). How do you choose what words and phrases to actually put into your poems? Is there something comparable to Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” at work? Do you consciously set about pruning language to reveal that which is implicit, those multiple intensities of meaning beneath the surface of the text?
Pearson: However capacious the content it encodes, every text — by default or by design, and regardless of its scale or mode of production — leaves out far more than it includes. Yet the meaning-potential of its resources is robust and extends beyond its historical moment. This is so because the set of interpretations that it can be shown to support must include those that neither the writer nor her contemporary readers could have anticipated. A text’s singularity (its haeccity or “thisness”) not only derives from what it specifically includes, but also from how what it omits makes its inclusions legible. These are aesthetic determinations that reflect its disposition toward, and contribution to, what Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible.”
My experience of writing is that words “come to mind.” While my sources vary from work to work — some preselected and some serendipitous — they share a common origin in the set of all possible words. That set, the mother of all source domains, is both anterior and exterior to whatever use is made of it. Given a word, others may follow. The work under construction is their immediate context, even as they bear with them traces of contexts previously occupied. If a poem results, it exists as such — a poem and not the idea of one. It doesn’t preexist the actual conditions and labor that produce it, and for which no ontological narrative suffices to account.
I feel accountable to the words I use, but that use is determined by the logic of the poem as I come to understand it. I write to discover what the words have to say for themselves, beyond what I otherwise may have thought to say. If I already “know” what is there to be written, I have scant motivation to write it down. When I was a child, my mother’s father gave me a proverb that I like very much: Pensa molto, parla poco, scrivi meno [Think much, speak little, write less].
A poem’s vocabulary coevolves with the constraints that mediate its composition — an iterative process of selection, combination, substitution, and recombination, which, in my case, involves improvisation on and tinkering with the words that “come to mind,” as well as fostering their eventual coherence in the through-composed text that results. In that scheme, omission and deletion are modes of recombination. The decision to retain or to delete a word is based on my (more or less) informed understanding of its potential contribution to the text. And that contribution isn’t always semantic. A word may have rhythmic, sonic, or eidetic properties that warrant its inclusion.
“The iceberg theory,” as I understand it, presupposes that what Hemingway called the “underlying truth” or “symbolic meaning” of a story must be sought “beneath the surface” of the text. (Here cue the theme from Titanic, if not from Jaws.) In my view, however, what “underlies” a text is the paper on which it’s printed, or these days the virtual “page” on which it appears. To the universal “verities” of deep structure, I prefer the idiosyncratic particularities of inscribed surfaces. To the surface-depth model of textual meaning (or of consciousness, for that matter) I prefer one that posits a highly redundant, multifunctional, non-hierarchical network that continuously processes and interacts with its external environment (i.e., the world). The “multiple intensities of meaning” you invoke are derivatives of that interaction.
I agree with Mondrian, who said that “Everything is constituted by relation and reciprocity … there is only position in opposition to another position. That is why I say that relation is the principal thing.” Relations, of course, are not “things,” but connections among things. In my view, a serial work is a nexus of possible relations among the elements of which it is made — and which constitute it as a structure of consequence, within and beyond the constraints and procedures that condition its existence.
Harley: Would you say that your sparse method of parsing such relations is indicative of a deeply skeptical sensibility towards the capacities of language to articulate the world?
Pearson: I’d say that my method isn’t sparse; neither is my work. Sparseness denotes a thinly scattered array of elements within a medium — an attenuation of material that is the very opposite of the compression my method seeks. I would want to distinguish between the apparent density of a text — the ratio of its verbal mass to its volume — and the actual “weight” of the words themselves, which I attribute to their “content,” here understood as the heterogeneous ideas, perceptions, feelings, and memories that a word or phrase can elicit when placed under pressure. Subsequent attributions of meaning to that content are context-dependent variables of the critical frame within which interpretation is produced.
Certainly, there are limits to what language can say and do. But I have much more reason to be skeptical of my capacity “to articulate the world” — which is not to say I think the world as such requires such articulation. That strikes me as a uniquely human concern, if not a defining feature of “the human.” Given that the systemic limits of language exceed those of any discrete utterance, writing allows me to explore some fraction of the manifold syntax of the world, even as its articulation mediates my relations with the world as the site and destination of writing. The fate of the work in the world is a concern, but its construction (without which, nothing) is another and more immediate concern.
Harley: The first book of contingencies (the second movement of An Intermittent Music) is called “Coulomb’s Law,” a reference to C. A. Coulomb’s 1793 law of physics that describes the interaction between electrically charged particles. The book comprises sixty-four poems, which dart between and intertwine with references to jazz (“arpeggiated wonders / body and soul”), urban decay (“neighborhoods tourists never see”), word-pointedness (“Maladroit reflex stunts grip / in the gap between names and things”), and the relationship between language and desire (“Split shift (sly sex) opens / the lexicon to plea or please”). What informed your choice of title? Why foreground a formula for measuring levels of attraction and repulsion?
Pearson: If the first movement involves exposition (for example, of the “theme” of subjectivation), the second involves development of that theme. And that development came to require more varied and more explicit references to the social contexts and interactions that alter and complicate our relations to ourselves and with others. In effect, the social and political context that had tacitly environed the first movement becomes increasingly available as manifest content in the second — as in fact also happens in the process of subjectivation. On analogy, Coulomb’s Law seemed apt. It states that the force between two charged particles is directly proportional to the product of their charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This focus on the dialectic of attraction and repulsion — and the effects of proximity on those forces — is very much to the point (processually, not formulaically). And I must say that I do experience words as “charged particles,” whose meaning-potential includes and exceeds their lexical definitions, their etymologies, and the social as well as literary history and contexts of their usage.
Harley: One of the first things one notices when reading “Coulomb’s Law” is a significant formal shift that continues throughout the second movement. Rather than the short lines and irregular strophic forms that precede them, these poems are mostly quatrains — with occasional tercets and couplets — and they sometimes use end rhymes as well. What was the thinking behind this use of a more regular pattern? And why the intermittent employment of rhyme?
Pearson: Each of the first three movements has a distinctive formal setting, each of which is then refigured in the final movement or coda. The first movement parses a psychosocial topology, mapping its distinctive features onto strophes that may appear “irregular” but are in fact based on recurring numerical patterns (or rhythmic cells, if you will). The second movement recombines those features, folding them into one another. That required an expanded vocabulary, additional registers, increased verbal density, and more frequent use of parataxis to better articulate, and at greater length, the contingencies shaping the work as it progressed.
I wanted the quatrain as the “default” for this movement because I felt it would foster the infolding I was after, while providing a recursive platform for extended sets of variations. As well, in making a case for lyric techne in the context of Language writing, the counterintuitive use of the quatrain — one of the oldest and most ubiquitous of verse forms — and of various types of rhyme — was as challenging as it was strategic. As Cage once said of Mac Low’s work, it is poetry “even though it looks like poetry.”
Harley: The reference to diabolus in musica in the last line of “Coulomb’s Law” (#64) seems to hint at the social constructedness of sound, the social tendency to invest certain tonal arrangements with semiotic (if not semantic) properties.
Pearson: At the end of a very long series, I wanted to give the devil his due. The devil, in this case, is the tritone, which, as you know, plays a major role in the history of Western music, primarily because of its perceived impropriety in relation to culturally sanctioned notions of harmony and the so-called natural order — and, by implication, of the social order as well. Against these assumptions, I hear dissonance as a furthering of harmonic relations, a sounding of unexpected possibility in search of fresher ears. Dissonance as dissensus.
Sound is sound — a physical phenomenon — which, if it falls within a certain range of frequencies, is available to human perception. Tonal discrimination is based on the perception of relative difference, as are all acts of critical discernment. But the more than aesthetic problem that arises is not the perception of difference per se (the capacity for which is hardwired in us), but rather what we subsequently make of the differences we perceive — often with disastrous consequences. It is the essentially arbitrary, socially constructed, and ideologically inflected meaning we give to difference that conditions our often under examined responses to it. Texts that foreground the poetic function of language can be occasions to reflect on and critique so-called normative usages and values. That, wherever else, is a place where poetics and politics intersect.
Harley: Your lineation throughout encryptions — although far more regular than the stepped movements we associate with later Williams, Eigner, or Mackey — brings into play, as do their works, the semantic importance of space. Can this visual space be read as silence? Or are such spaces meant to suggest an absence, a void, nothingness? When read aloud, they are silences — but on the page?
Pearson: Before we proceed to read space as silence — which already involves an interpretive shift from the visual to the acoustic — we might first see what comes of reading space as space. “Music,” according to Debussy, “is the silence between notes.” This definition — which unwittingly anticipates and warrants Cage’s 4’33” — suggests that silence is the acoustic equivalent of “negative space.” If we then combine Debussy’s definition with Varèse’s — “Music is organized sound” — we might think of silence as the organizing principle by which “what is not” makes “what is” perceptible.
So, too, when we consider the page (to return to the visual realm), the question becomes whether negative space can first be read as constitutive of what appears on the page. Negative space is critical to the material production of a text — from the design and execution of the letter-forms and fonts we use, to the myriad typographical decisions that result in the final text image. At every point on the design spectrum, negative space contributes to the legibility, readability, color, and tone of a text. Thus, it contributes to meaning.
Equally important when we read a poem is that we learn to “hear with eyes.” Whatever else, a public reading is an extension or amplification of the private practice of silent (more precisely, subvocal) reading. Subvocalization importantly reduces the cognitive load imposed on us by written language and enhances our cognitive processing of it. A text’s phonological organization (including its silences) can variously reinforce, augment, and complicate its semantic dimension. Attending to its acoustic properties can only heighten our awareness of poetry as embodied thought.
Harley: I want to discuss, in far more detail, the role of silence in your poetry. John Thorpe compared your poetry to Webern, and certainly in Webern’s music the notes that are not written down — the gaps in the sound, the spaces, the silences — are arguably as important as those that are. John Cage has spoken many times about the impossibility of absolute silence. Do you metaphorize silence in your poetry? Or do you see it in purely acoustic terms, as one end of the spectrum of sound?
Pearson: Cage’s assertion was based on his experience in an anechoic chamber. Even with all external signals canceled, he heard the hum and rumble of his nervous and cardio systems. That’s possible because the chamber has an atmosphere, and sound waves are only perceptible in an atmosphere with a sufficient density of atoms per cubic foot. Silence is relative not only to the conditions under which we experience it, but also in relation to the sounds it shapes within the audible spectrum.
The actual word “silence” appears but rarely in my poems — on average, once every five years — and then it denotes the absence of language or of perceptible sound. In context, that absence lends itself to (and can invite) metaphorical interpretation, but the poems don’t insist on that. I prefer analogies to metaphors because analogy can interrogate logical relations beyond assertions of likeness or identity — given that poetic logic often deviates from the canons of “standard” logic, to good and necessary effect.
Harley: Apart from intralinear gaps between words, which you frequently use in contingencies, what strategies do you use to invoke silence? Does silence only acquire meaning — or at least acquire its richest meanings — when placed in highly formalized contexts?
Pearson: I don’t so much seek to invoke silence as to include it in my work. But I see it (as well as hear it) as a spatiotemporal element — one use of which is to signify duration, which affects the unfolding of the text as read. Within lines, I use two en-spaces to mark caesurae of slightly longer duration than those that a prosodically nuanced reading of a line might call for. In effect, they are gaps on the axis of combination that can increase polysemy, signal sentential shifts, alter syllabic stress, and effect lineal compression — effects produced between lines by line-breaks and by gaps between strophes and poems.
I don’t know that silence (qua space) can “only acquire meaning … in highly formalized contexts,” but it certainly can contribute to making meaning within such contexts — first, by helping to define lines and phrases, and then by creating voids in which emergent meanings can resonate and be tested and contested. The “richness” of those meanings depends as much on what the reader brings to them as on the settings I provide. Though I can neither predict nor control a reader’s response — nor would I want to — my settings do suggest a way of reading. My hope is that the reader-text relation will be in some way mutually informing, and that the reader will seek to steer a course between the Scylla of authorial intention and the Charybdis of an interpretive free-for-all.
Ted Pearson with wife Sheila Lloyd at Zeitgeist, Detroit, 2006.
Harley: “Coulomb’s Law” (1984) was followed one year later by “Mnemonics.” Mnemonic devices are learning techniques (often, but not necessarily verbal) that we use to enhance memory. An obvious example from music is the acronym “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” in which the first letters name, in ascending order, the notes that correspond to the lines of the treble staff. Your title suggests that each of the poems in “Mnemonics” serves a similar function; they encode information that may otherwise be difficult to recall. What prompted your interest in mnemonics at this point? What were you seeking to encode in these poems?
Pearson: For about as long as I’ve been writing poems, I’ve been fascinated by the oblique ways in which writing from experience and writing as experience interact, especially with regard to episodic memories — those encrypted shards of lived experience that can haunt the present of writing even as it looks to its horizon. In such instances, “information that may otherwise be difficult to recall” isn’t necessarily difficult to access — and may indeed be impossible to ignore. Rather, such information may be difficult to endure, particularly when doing so appears essential to understanding the impasse or trauma it represents.
A “mnemonics” is a system of memory devices, and writing can be one such system, albeit one that transforms (and re-forms) experience in the process of encoding it. This transformation results from the over-determined selection and placement of words in a text, especially one that foregrounds its “message,” which always arrives in the present. At any moment, what is present as memory exists in relation to what is not, or is no longer, present. I think here of Barthes’s observation that “to remember is also to acknowledge and to lose again what will not recur.”
Memory proceeds from an initial input to encode, rehearse, and reproduce information. Abetted by our affective enhancement of this input, these processes produce what we experience as memories (what we remember as our experience). “Coulomb’s Law,” for example, encodes what for me were significant (affectively enhanced) experiences that were concurrent with its composition. In the process, however, and as the epigraph from Celan suggests, the code itself becomes the present (evental) memory: “there remains in the midst of the losses, this one thing: language.” Yet I sensed in that “one thing” a splitting — between the language of a remainder (which memorializes that which has been lost), and language as remainder (that is, as the present content of memory, which “writes through” or “overwrites” experience in the process of making it available to thought).
“Mnemonics” continues to explore this splitting by taking as its object “the memory of memory” — a second-order mise-en-abyme that mirrors the reflexivity of a signifying chain. Its poems form a series of calls and responses within that hall of mirrors. Implicit in the minimal use of personal pronouns in the series is my sense that the memory of memory is strangely impersonal — and also temporally extensive, even as temporality in these poems is compressed and sedimented so as to bind the immemorial to the memorable. “From the plunge millennia / from the window miles of beach.”
Harley: “Mnemonics” takes as its epigraph a line by Mallarmé’: “Aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore” [“Abolished trinket of sonorous inanity”]. In relation to the poems it introduces, this line seems darkly ironic, if not dismissive. What are you implying about the significance of the “events” you’re seeking to preserve?
Pearson: The epigraph reminds us that the meaning of any sign — even a “semblance of nought in vacuo,” as I later write in “Descant” — is only ever a translation into yet another sign, such that meaning is never “fixed” in time, but ranges over a potentially interminable circuit of transpositions. I took the epigraph from Mallarmé’s formidable “sonnet en -yx.” To abolish is to render something null and void, but the word derives from the Latin abolescere (“to decay little by little”). That — given the gradual effacement of “experience” by its successive reinscriptions in memory — is the sense of nullification I was after.
In Mallarmé’s poem, “bibelot” [trinket] refers to the antecedent phrase “nul ptyx.” But in contrast with translations that render “ptyx” [Greek, for “fold”] as a metonym for “seashell,” I follow the classicist Gretchen Kromer in linking “ptyx” and “bibelot” to Aeschylus’ phrase “en ptychais biblon” [“in the folds of the book”] — and we know the importance that the “fold” [pli] and “the Book” [le Livre] held for Mallarmé. Hence, the noun-phrase “nul ptyx” (which evokes a nullity folded on itself) exemplifies an empty signifier.
I suspect that Mallarmé may initially have been attracted to the phrase’s phonological value. Given the paucity of French words ending in -yx, it satisfies the constraint imposed by his rhyme scheme: solve for -yx. Moreover, “inanité” derives from the Latin inanitas, meaning emptiness, which allows me to trace through the sonnet a series of cancellations, of emptyings-out, gesturing toward the “the void eternally generative” to which Lu Chi refers in his Wen Fu [The Art of Writing] — and which he sees as the medium that warrants all acts of creation. Far from ironizing or dismissing the poems it introduces, the epigraph frames them as signs of past encounters with — and adamantly present instances of — that generative if existential void.
Harley: Mallarmé is renowned for his formal strictness, richly complicated syntax, and multilayered semantic content. He made it a goal of his art, as Malcolm Bowie has observed, to reclaim from music the “structural complexity” and “power of implication” that, in his view, were the birthright of poetry alone. As a poet who has spent much of your career thinking about the relations between language and music, to what extent do you share Mallarmé’s artistic aims in this regard?
Pearson: I value structural complexity because it engages and taxes the limits of thought, inviting “the unthinkable” and the highly improbable to the table (and, I would argue, that non-trivial complexity is built of “simple” if impenetrable elements). As well, I value the “power of implication” for its capacity to conjure what is and what might be otherwise from that which is not and may never have been (by which we learn, if indeed we do, to expect the unexpected). But I certainly don’t see those properties as unique to poetry, much less as a “birthright” to be reclaimed from music. Rather, I see Mallarmé’s “aims” in relation to Wagner, after whom, according to Mallarmé, “Music has met Verse to form Poetry” — and whose “ideal” of the total art work, or Gesamtkunstwerk, perhaps inspired Mallarmé’s final project: the unwriteable “Book” in which he imagined the “essence” of all literature and reality would be distilled.
Physics seems to have taken up the Mallarméan quest for a “theory of everything.” But since every theory, sooner or later, is humbled by its epistemic limits, I think poetry is better suited to the pursuit of “everything else” — as supplement, as excess, as rare event — the equally Mallarméan quest for the flower “l'absente de tous bouquets.” In cultivating that imaginary garden, I don’t see music as a rival to poetry, but as a resource for compositional strategies. For example, as in the case of “nul ptyx,” there are moments when a vocable might insist itself on a text, even if its semantic value is unclear or null. But that is not a matter of wresting anything from music. As Williams professes in Spring and All: “I do not believe writing would gain in quality or force by seeking to aspire to the condition of music.”
Harley: Pierre Boulez described his composition Pli selon pli (1957) — which takes its title from Mallarmé’s sonnet “Remémoration d’amis belges” — as an attempt to “transpose” the formal strictness of Mallarmé’s poetry into music. Boulez claimed, when reflecting on the work in 1999, that what interested him as a musician most about Mallarmé’s writings were “the transitions between complete intelligibility and comprehensibility and ever decreasing intelligibility. The interstices, the varying degrees of the intervals, which so highly charge a sentence or a word with “information” that, for example, at the end of a sentence or word one no longer knows how it began, simply because after a certain length of time continuity turns into discontinuity.” Do you share Boulez’s interest in Mallarmé’s “transitions” and “interstices”?
Pearson: Yes. Those are among the features that I value most in his work, though I’d suggest that rather than “decreasing intelligibility,” they in fact reconfigure the intelligible, which I would argue is the task of art. Mallarmé’s “fold by fold” compression and reworking of textual space-time — his awareness of time’s plasticity and multidirectional flows — are critical in this regard. We can see in his use of “remémoration” that the very act of composition “calls forth” a vision or version of the present that is at once fragile and buttressed between an inaccessible past and an unknowable future.
Also implicit in Boulez’s remarks is the immense difficulty, if not impossibility, of holding in mind the originary “cell” of a tone row as it passes through its myriad transpositions, inversions, and retrogressions in the course of a performance. It is much easier to track these metamorphoses in the back-and-forth process of reading a printed score. Where “live audition” relies on short-term memory, which acoustically encodes a very limited quantity of information, reading allows for long-term memory, which is far more capacious, and is thought to be based on semantic coding.
That may be how “writing is an aid to memory” — as the title of Lyn Hejinian’s marvelous book proposes, and as the text of that book richly complicates. In fact, I would link the challenges posed to thought by discontinuity and “unintelligibility” to Lyn’s insight that “variations on ideas are now full / problems” — a phrase in which we recognize, and are challenged to pursue, an epistemic adventure.
Grand Piano authors at reading in Detroit, 2008.
Harley: Are you ever tempted to return to composing or performing music? Or are you content working in the realm of language?
Pearson: I’ve never been seriously tempted to return to the practice of music — in part, because I’ve never regretted my turn to poetry, and, as a purely practical matter, because I couldn’t hope to regain what’s been lost to decades of musical inactivity. Music at the level that interests me most is not a forgiving art; it requires an order of commitment that I choose to give to poetry. As Chaucer writes: “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” In fact, it’s only recently that I’ve picked up an instrument again, and that was prompted by working on The Grand Piano, specifically Etudes 7 and 8 which reflect on my time in music and what I took from it into poetry. I thought to use my alto sax as a kind of mnemonic device, which worked to a certain extent. As it turned out, the experience of playing again was eerily familiar — and not. More than a little unheimlich.
As for the prospect of being “content” with my chosen medium, I defer to Muddy Waters’ classic recording from 1948: “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” While I take great pleasure in working on a text, any satisfaction in the results of that labor is fleeting. Even as writing reliably exposes one’s more than technical limitations, it demands that one push beyond them. In effect, I think each next text “writes through” the texts that have preceded it. The rubric here, as Beckett says, is “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It is the hope sans expectation of failing “better” (whatever that might mean) that keeps me going.
Harley: “Catenary Odes” (1987) is the third book of contingencies. “Catenary” (from the Latin catena: chain) refers to the curved shape assumed by any freely hanging chain (or other string-like structure) suspended between two fixed points and acted upon solely by gravity. Your epigraph, from the Italian poet Eugenio Montale — “By wire, by wing, by wind, by chance” (which translates a line from the eleventh poem of his twenty-part Motetti, 1934–38) — seems to link the mathematical shape of the catenary with the artistic voice; what Montale, in Alan Marshfield’s translation, calls a “soul, diffuse” whose echoes “go, / by favour of the muse or artifice, / joyful or sad.” Are these poems informed by the notion of a curved, naturally (and mathematically) recurring voice? If not, what was the thinking behind the title and epigraph?
Pearson: Montale’s phrase, “La tua voce” [your voice], provokes us to identify its addressee. Inasmuch as the Motetti are love poems, the literal addressee might be Irma Brandeis, the Dante scholar and intimate of Montale. But on a figurative level, I associate that “voice” with poetic discourse as such — in Barthes’s suggestive phrase, “the rustle of language” — and not with “the artistic voice” or the poet’s voice, so called. On that view, the epigraph identifies modes of transmission exterior but also accessible to the writing subject. They are instances of the “outside” I look to for poetry. As well, I read “quest’anima diffusa” not as “that soul, diffuse,” but as “that instrument[al] emanation” — a less obvious but equally attestable rendering — as is my idiomatic reading of “col / favore” as “under the cover” or “in the guise” — “della musa o d’un ordegno” — “of the muse or a machine.”
Formally, my “Odes” are split quatrains. On analogy with the gravitational attraction that produces a catenary’s characteristic shape, I wanted to see how “syntagmatic attraction” would negotiate (arc across) the space between those “couplets.” The properties of a catenary that interested me here are that it is “perfectly flexible, uniformly dense, and inextensible.” I imagined those properties might inform how meaning accrues and changes from line to line.
Harley: The next book of contingencies is “Descant,” which you once described to Charles Bernstein as a work that is concerned with “compression on the one hand and fullness … duration on the other.” In that conversation, you note that it took two years to complete “Descant,” working at least two hours a day. Why so long to compose twenty-four quatrains that can be read, as you told Bernstein, in “about ten minutes”?
Pearson: The context was a taping session for the LINEbreak series, which Charles coproduced with Martin Spinelli in Buffalo. Prior to my reading “Descant,” Charles played straight man and asked, “What’s it about?” So I replied, “It’s about ten minutes.” Aside from sharing a laugh, I wanted to emphasize the relation between compression and duration in my work. Early on, I took to heart Cage’s maxim that “there are no aesthetic emergencies.” It takes as long as it does to discover what a work requires and subsequently offers — and for me a fair amount of that time involves working through and around the limitations of what I otherwise presume to “know” about it. The longue durée of that working through is as central to my practice as are the intermittently occurring intensities (qua poems) that it produces. It’s not a matter “settling” for words I can live with having written, but rather of learning to recognize the words that the poem can’t do without. In the case of “Descant,” my inveterate slowness as a writer was compounded by moving to New York from California in the summer of ’88.
Harley: Your title, as ever, was carefully chosen. As a noun, “descant” has multiple meanings, and as a musical term, it has a range of usages. For example, it can denote a counter-melody, often improvised, frequently ornamental, pitched above the basic melody that it accompanies. But I suspect that as a poet who eschews “self-expression,” you would resist interpretations of the title that imply your song or “voice” functions somehow “above” or apart from others. And as a poet who works slowly, with Webernesque attention to detail, you also would resist any notion that you improvise on words for merely decorative purposes. I wonder, then, whether the title is profoundly ironic — or, since as a verb “descant” means to discourse on a theme, if that was the sense you had in mind?
Pearson: Unintended irony and ornament aside, why might “descant” not function here as both a verb and a noun? As verb, the title signals the imperative mood, a form of exhortation. With my fortieth birthday not far off — “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” — and approaching the midpoint of An Intermittent Music, I challenged myself to compose a text that would reflect contrapuntally, and in a “higher” more improvisatory register, on the work that had preceded it. Hence, as noun, the title refers to a specific mode of discourse.
Descant, as you note, was often improvised — and early descant was actually pitched below the cantus firmus or “fixed song.” It was considered a subordinate, if presumably devotional, embellishment of the canonical text and was therefore “outside the canon.” Idle speculation on my part suggests that over time the presumed gravitas of the canon required it to occupy a more “foundational” (hence, lower) pitch-domain, leaving the upper register to the descant. And in fact the term, in that sense, derives from the phrase discantus supra librum — “a part-song above the book.”
Since I was positioning “Descant” in counterpoint to my previous work, I gave improvisation a freer rein. Against canonicity’s presumed authority to enforce hierarchies of form and practice, I don’t consider improvisation subordinate or inferior to through-composition. Rather, I see them as equally compelling approaches to composition, even as they typically present somewhat different aesthetic risks and rewards. And as a poet, I rely on both to go about my work.
On analogy with musical voicing, the “higher” register I sought refers to extending semantic meanings beyond their “normal range” of usage (in music, tessitura). I was looking for a “new” language, albeit one internally derived from my extant work. One “model” that occurred to me at the time was Charlie Parker’s account of having found a way to play what he’d been hearing in his head by revoicing “Cherokee,” a jam-session staple, using diminished fifths and sevenths — hence improvising “dissonantly” above the original or “canonical” melody. Formally, this recalls discantus supra librum, as well as the harmonic “sacrilege” of diabolus in musica.
Harley: The epigraph to “Descant” is from Arthur Rimbaud’s “Départ”: “Départ dans l’affection et le bruit neufs” [Departure in new affection and new noise]. How does this celebration of artistic renewal inform your words in “Descant”?
Pearson: “Descant” is literally a book of departures. I was anticipating my departure from the Bay Area and my departure to a “new life” elsewhere. I began it in the fall of ’87, as my then partner was herself preparing to go on the academic market. It was all but given that we’d be leaving California, a prospect I viewed with some ambivalence. To that point, I had lived almost all of my life within an hour’s drive of my birthplace. Most of my friends and many of my closest colleagues in poetry lived in the Bay Area, and my family had been in California for seven generations. Yet despite those roots, and the quality of life I enjoyed there, it was time for a change.
As work on “Descant” proceeded, I came to see it as the text I had been working toward since coming to poetry, so it represented a culmination as well as a new beginning. On the one hand, it was a farewell and an homage to the only “home” I’d ever known and the writing community that had sustained me there. On the other, it was, as you suggest, an assertion of “artistic renewal” — which included my coming to accept the fact that I was, after all, a poet. Strange as that might sound in light of the work I’d already produced, it had remained difficult for me to overcome the diffidence I felt toward “being a poet” — as distinct from my commitment to “writing poetry” (which, mistakenly or not, is what I thought I was doing). That acceptance and my sense of renewal are reflected in the “new noise” of the book’s syntax and diction.
Harley: The final book of contingencies, “Planetary Gear” (1991) comprises sixty-two poems, making it your second-longest book after “Coulomb’s Law,” which has sixty-four poems. It seems even more focused on the “microtonic word,” as you call it, than the books that precede it, and your method becomes even more wide-ranging and semantically restless: neologisms (such as “Xenobodacious”) begin to be play a greater role in your exploration of resonant slippage within language, “microtonic” deviations around socially and culturally delineated meanings.
Pearson: An overview of contingencies would reveal “Coulomb’s Law” and “Planetary Gear” as its antipodes. The decade spanned by those poles ran from the “Reagan Revolution” to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which (with its plot points of crises and proxy wars) had until then been coterminous with the life of my generation. More “locally,” my experience of daily life in the ’80s, in a right-wing state under late capitalism, was the context for the second movement and the source of much of its content. Allowing for my characteristic modes of encryption, that content is perhaps more explicit in “Planetary Gear” than previously — as is the larger work’s turn toward cultural poetics.
I say “turn” advisedly because the title refers to a system of gears that revolve around a central gear — and the midpoint of An Intermittent Music (which has 496 poems) occurs between the last poem in “Descant” and the first poem in “Planetary Gear.” Among the characteristics of this system of gearing are that it produces large reduction in a small volume, increased power density, multiple kinematic combinations, and pure torsional reactions, and it involves high bearing-loads and design complexity — attractive qualities indeed.
The introduction of neologisms and “microtonic deviations” that you remark upon was an extension of the “higher register” I had sought in “Descant.” Thirty of the thirty-five neologisms in An Intermittent Music (.002 percent of its lexicon) appear in or after “Planetary Gear” — and I turned to them only when I couldn’t get the microtones of meaning I needed by other means. Perhaps more revealing of my writing practice than my use of neologism is that one-fourth of all words in An Intermittent Music (.26 percent of its lexicon) are hapax legomena: words used only once in the entire work. And that percentage almost doubles if we exclude “function words.”
Further to your point about my focus on “microtonic variations” is the role of connotation in the production of meaning. Connotation not only supplements the primary meaning of a word, it actually determines its contextual significance. In logic, it refers to the set of attributes that constitute the meaning of a term and so determine the range of objects to which that term may be applied — and I think that holds for poetic logic and for poetry’s “objects” well.
Harley: songs aside, the third movement of An Intermittent Music, comprises four books — “Acoustic Masks,” “The Devil’s Aria,” “Hard Science,” and “Parker’s Mood” — composed between 1992 and 2002. You adopt a new form for these poems, each of which has four short couplets with stepped margins, and you make more expansive use of the page than previously. How does this movement function in relation to the overall structure of the work? Why was a new formal strategy required for enacting this content?
Pearson: Each movement has one fewer book than the one before it, so songs aside is a “quartet.” Its first two books (thirty-six and twenty-four poems, respectively) are nonidentical mirror-images of its last two (twenty-four and thirty-six), an enantiomorphic structure that supports the nonidentical mirroring that plays throughout this movement, which can be read as a masque of subject-effects produced under neoliberalism. The title refers to Mallarmé’s Chansons Bas — poems written as captions for Les Types de Paris, a series of drawings by Jean-François Raffaëlli. As the various shadings of “bas” suggest, the poems are “asides,” which appear “under” the portraits on whose “common” subjects they comment “from below.”
In keeping with the analogy to sonata form, songs aside recapitulates the earlier movements, albeit in a different register. The form its poems take results from combining the spare, often enjambed lineation of the first movement and the denser, more paratactic prosody of the second. I wanted to emphasize scalar relations of its lines, strophes, and poems. Each poem in songs aside can be read as a set of four couplets; as a pair of “split” quatrains, marked by the “back step” at line five, and as single octaves whose eight stepped lines suggest a descending scale. The steps and expanded text-area serve to evoke the masque’s underlying “choreography.”
Harley: Given that framework, could you gloss how your “chronic ideas,” to borrow Lyn Hejinian’s phrase, play out through this “quartet”?
Pearson: In my case, “chronic puzzlements” would be more like it. But I can suggest the settings in which the books address subject formation — from nonidentical mirroring (in which the subject, alienated from itself, enters the Symbolic Order) to interpellation (as the ideological masque of political subjectivation, such that even as the subject is not “one,” neither is it reducible to its so-called “positions”) — and through which libidinal, poetic, and political economies interact with and articulate each other.
“Acoustic Masks” responds to the resurgence of the “culture wars” in the early ’90s. In that milieu, political conflict was widely attributed to conflicting “cultural values,” which, as did others, I read as a rhetorical move to use “culture” as a mask for “ideology.” Not for the last time, public discourse was increasingly shrill — and rife with interpellation. As the neoliberal agenda advanced under Clinton, my political compass showed “unlimited drift / to the right” (as noted in “Parker’s Mood”). Given widespread antipathy to critical thinking, reasoned discussion in the public sphere can be very hard to come by, whence the epigraph from Lacan: “They have ears so as not to hear.”
The book’s title refers to a class of instruments called “singing membranophones,” more specifically, a type of African “tube-mirliton” constructed by placing a spider web over one open end of a bird bone. When a player sings or speaks through the other end, the effect is to alter or mask the player’s voice, so the instrument functions as an acoustic mask — and does so even more when played through the mouth-hole of a ritual mask. In this book (as throughout the movement), the masque is a contiguous series of masks, through which a rather disparate array of subject-effects, qua personae, “speak.”
“The Devil’s Aria” seeks to reaffirm the value of the aesthetic against its detractors, especially those who attack or dismiss avant-garde (or, more broadly, experimental) practices on cultural or political grounds. The poems’ dissensus is directed equally at the aestheticization of the political and the politicization of the aesthetic. In that spirit, the book’s title is intended to establish a “vernacular” tone; it is both a homophonic contraction of Dante’s title, De Vulgari Eloquentia, and a nod to discrepant lyricism — “the Devil in the music” — embodied in the purposive (if occasionally ludic) use of rhyme, cued by the epigraph from Laura Riding Jackson: “And if occasionally a rhyme appeared / This was the illness but not the death.” Extrapolating from her poem — whose “subject” is death, not poetry — I read “rhyme” as both symptomatic of a departure from “normal” usage and as a sign of “the poetic function.” While the invention of new forms can produce new content, I would argue that repurposing “older” forms or technologies, such as rhyme, is by no means “fatal” to the production of new content.
“Hard Science” follows as an outsider’s portrait of Detroit, where I lived and worked for nine years. It seeks to locate the previous aesthetico-political discussion in a specific setting and habitus. Yet even as its references are largely site-specific, the book assumes Detroit’s iconic status as a bellwether for the decline of industrial capitalism, the resultant immiseration of affected communities, and the pervasive effects of racism, including economic and environmental racism, on the everyday lives of many. And, as the poems also suggest, periodic attempts to “save” or to reimagine the city are impeded not only by external forces, but also by the difficulty in overcoming entrenched attitudes and policies — and by a historically explicable if counterproductive siege mentality, wary if not dismissive of “outside” ideas and perspectives.
Harley: That brings us to “Parker’s Mood,” the final book in songs aside. Meta DuEwa Jones calls “jazz” poems — or more precisely, “jazz-inflected” poems — those which reference jazz either thematically (by mentioning specific performers, titles, clubs, styles, and so on) or structurally (by adopting jazz-associated practices, such as improvisation), or both. “Parker’s Mood” refers to Charlie Parker’s themeless blues improvisation, and there are many examples of jazz entering your poetry in quite explicit ways. To cite but a few lines (spanning decades and out of context): “With a hint of a smile / a ghost of a chance” — “Gonadology / jitterbug waltz” — “arpeggiated wonders / body and soul” — “April in Paris / a season in hell” — “memento mori / these foolish things / a tree where late / the Yardbird sings” — and “a cool breeze / don’t explain.” Do you see yourself, in Jones’s terms, as a jazz poet, a composer of “jazz-inflected” poems?
Pearson: I did take the title from Parker’s classic 1948 recording, which, as you note, is a themeless improvisation — or perhaps one whose theme remains unstated but suffuses the entire composition. Parker effectively essays the evolution of the blues — blues culture as well as blues form, filtered through his medium and his lived experience — in three impeccable minutes. In the process, he achieves a remarkable fusion of emotional articulacy and compositional logic. In that spirit, I wanted to attempt a “time-lapse” retrospective of cultural life as I experienced it from the mid-1960s (when I was active in music as well as poetry) to the completion of songs aside in 2002.
By Jones’s definition, I seem to have written any number of “jazz-inflected” lines. But no, I don’t see myself as a jazz poet. I did spend some years playing jazz — and have spent a lifetime listening to it. And it’s true that my writing does make thematic and structural use of it at times. But I’ve made such use of other musics, and various non-musical sources besides, so I wouldn’t privilege one source, however dear to me, over others. As well, “jazz poetry” is closely linked to performance traditions rooted in orature — e.g., dramatic recitation by bards and griots, scat singing, spoken-word poetry, and free-style rap — traditions that don’t significantly inform my practice.
Grand Piano reading in New York City, 2011.
Harley: encryptions, the final movement of An Intermittent Music, includes three books — “Phase Rule,” “Dark Matter,” and “Null Set” — which are laden with “negativity.” In the first book, you allude to Schopenhaurean pessimism: “The world as will a double negative” (#33). In the second, we find “the historical subject / stuck in traffic / on the via negativa” (#12). And in the last, you refer (self-referentially? self-parodically?) to your poems as “psalms of negation” (#4). How has negativity proven generative for you in your writing? And why, as a concept, was it particularly relevant while composing encryptions in the first decade of this century?
Pearson: In my final etude for The Grand Piano, I write: “The motto of my so-called career would be this: possibility inheres in its negation. As a poet, there’s no limit to what I cannot do. Dear Negativity, how many words you’ve spared me. Which is to say I find it impossible to write unless and until I am writing. Then (and only then) is it impossible not to.” Subtended by these twin “impossibilities” is my belief that poetry must be motivated by something more consequential than the desire to engage in what Adorno calls “a mode of conduct adapted to production as an end in itself.” In my view, that something more is a commitment to extending the practice of poetry as art into a critical method of interrogating the culture in which it arises.
In that etude, I also suggest that “the politics of writing begin with the refusal to know one’s place — except as a ground of contestation and critical intervention.” As Barrett notes in The Constructivist Moment, “If there is one criterion of the avant-garde with which its critics all agree, it is of the avant-garde’s historical origins in a negative moment of refusal of the culture from which it emerges.” While such refusal may take many forms, I think its aesthetico-political significance depends on how, and to what extent, it engages in what Dante calls “la battaglia della diversi pensieri” [“the battle of diverse thoughts”]. On analogy with Adorno’s “negative dialectics” — which proposes a mode of critical thinking that resists co-optation by the state’s apparatus of domination — poetry’s modes of critical intervention must resist recuperation by the prevailing cultural regime.
For one example of how my work finds its possibility in negation, we might look at the line you cite from “Phase Rule,” which includes a redaction of Schopenhauer’s title, The World As Will and Representation. My thinking was that whatever follows “as” in such constructions is always already a representation of what Schopenhauer, after Kant, calls “the thing in itself.” Since “will” in Schopenhauer also refers to “striving” and “desire” — and since “desire” (pace Deleuze and Guattari) can be said to signal “lack” — I read “will” qua “desire” as a sign of productive negativity.
“Representation” refers in turn to the mental image or idea one forms in response to an object external to oneself. Implicit here is the relation of nonidentity between the “thing” and the “idea” of the thing. (In passing, I’ll note my dissent from the Platonism of Schopenhauer’s aesthetics.) Also implicit, for me but not for Schopenhauer, is the perceiving subject’s alienation from and nonidentity with the objects of the “world” — a further entailment of desire and lack in which I read “representation” as another sign of negativity. Whence, the line in question became: “The world as will a double negative.”
(For more on the structure of encryptions and the social context of its negativity, see our interview in Hambone 19. For an incisive and multidisciplinary analysis of negativity, see Barrett Watten’s The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics, especially chapters 4, 6, and 8. And for an exemplary instance of the creative, genre-bending uses of negativity, see Carla Harryman’s Adorno’s Noise.)
Harley: In “Phase Rule,” you write: “Impossible music visible scars // in sintered chords from beaten brass / the anarchy of production masks // an infinitely small vocabulary” (#8). What does “impossible” mean in this context? I was thinking about your comments in our interview for Hambone 19 in which you explicitly situated yourself as a formalist, and not an expressivist, in terms of music-language relations. Can you elaborate on this concept of music’s “impossibility”?
Pearson: I think we’ve covered my take on those relations in our interview for Hambone 19 and in the first part of this one. But I will add that I use “music” in my poems as a kind of linguistic marker — an “x-factor” in their composition that I find consistently generative. Here, though, let me recall what I can of the thinking behind my use of “impossible” in “Phase Rule” #8.
I began by reflecting on Spicer’s discussion of dictation in “Vancouver Lecture #3.” There, he acknowledges that even when “the Outside is dictating the thing [qua poem],” the poet can never completely “get [her]self out of it.” He says, “It’s just impossible to make your mind a blank.” And in my experience, he’s right. Try as I might when writing to hear what language has to say “for itself,” there’s always a certain amount of “static,” of psychological noise (and the definition of “psychological noise” bears uncanny resemblance to ideology). For meditators, maybe that static goes away. But that, as they say in zazen, is “just sitting.” Ergo, it’s not “just writing,” the practice that concerns me here. Absent the “ideal” transmisssion that the poetry of dictation proposes, the “music” (a figure of “pure” content) is “impossible” because it can’t come through the static — and, I would argue, is also impossible precisely because it’s an “ideal.”
But, there’s still the poetry that does come through — not as music in its sonic “purity,” but as language in all its semantic “impurity,” which we read as text, as “visible scars,” on the formerly blank (blanc) page. OR, as my second line then suggests, perhaps the real “music” of language does come through; perhaps it just is the “static” — indeterminate in pitch and overdetermined in meaning. Thus, as at the end of “Thing Music,” Spicer echoes 1 Corinthians with “The sounding brass of my heart says / ‘Love’” — my line echoes Spicer’s with “sintered chords from beaten brass.”
My third line “hears” the resulting clamor as “the anarchy of production” — on analogy with “tonal production” — thus recalling the presence of psychological (and ideological) “noise” in the mix, and playing off the Marxist notion that, in the neoliberal reorganization of the economy, unequal development of that economy and the social consequences of that inequality are inevitable. In the poem, (tonal) anarchy is said to “mask / an infinitely small vocabulary.” Readers of Spicer will immediately recognize that the line is taken from After Lorca — the book from which his poetics of dictation takes off, and in which Spicer asserts several times that “The perfect poem has an infinitely small vocabulary” — another “impossible” figure.
Harley: In “Null Set,” the final book of An Intermittent Music, you assert that it is “Difficult as ever / to speak of paradise.” What does that mean in terms of poetry’s ability to engage with the myriad problems that currently beset the world?
Pearson: I trust that it means what it says: that such engagement is as “difficult” as it is necessary. But I think what’s at stake here is the notion of “paradise” as a figure for the relation between utopian thought and negativity. In that context, a funny thing happened on the way to utopia. Thomas More’s adoption of the New Latin word blends the Greek words “ou-topia” [“no place”] and “eu-topia” [“good place”], which in Greek are phonologically distinct, but in English are homophones. Idiosyncratically, I read that transliteration as installing negativity in paradise — an outcome represented in religious lore as the serpent in the garden (a representation that, in “Catenary Odes,” I dismiss as “mamboid eschatology”).
So to get at the sense of the utopian that I’m after, I look to the pre-religious meanings of “paradise.” Early adaptations of the Avestan word pairi.daêza [“walled around”] can refer to an enclosure, a cultivated garden, an estate, a royal park — even a menagerie, as in the Greek ho parádeisos. From these usages, I take such notions as a built environment; a cultural domain; an intentional, socially constructed space — without recourse to pre- and post-lapsarian narratives and without eschatological baggage. Though the “good place” (eutopia) that ideally obviates the “myriad problems that beset the world” is nowhere (outopia) to be found — and may be no more than a thought experiment — I believe the possibility of “failing better,” in social as well as aesthetic terms, “inheres in its negation.”
What I derive from utopia’s encounter with negativity (and what informs my sense of poetry’s engagement with the world as such) is what Ernst Bloch called “the principle of hope” — which for me is a hope that remains undiminished by the fact of its wild improbability. I think here of Badiou’s rendering of Pauline hope “as a simple imperative of continuation, a principle of tenacity, of obstinacy.” It is that hope which underlies “Null Set” (#11) — the final poem in An Intermittent Music:
The wind in the wires
is also song
of which no words
as what was written
must now be
over (and over)
in the archive
of an image
that is not a song
but a cipher
to the many
that more shall be
Harley: Thanks, Ted. Any final thoughts before we wrap this up?
Pearson: Simply to say that I’ve enjoyed our exchanges, and that I’m deeply grateful for your generosity and devotion to my work. I also want to thank John Tranter for his initial interest in this interview — and Julia Bloch and her colleagues at Jacket2 for following through. I realize that it’s a bit strange to have focused on a work that is not yet available in its final, substantially revised form. For now, while the manuscript seeks a publisher, I’d invite interested readers to check out Songs Aside (Past Tents Press, 2003) and Encryptions (Singing Horse Press, 2007). And with that:
1. From a conversation that took place in May 1999 at IRCAM in Paris, translated by Richard Evidon, available here.