'The problem with being numerous is a problem of memory'
A review of Joshua Ware's 'Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley'
In a certain sense, to write an homage to something or someone is to admit a failure: one has neither the initiative, creativity nor means to attempt to create something new, something less overtly indebted to one’s specific interests. Paying homage displays a writer’s embrace of influence — especially artistic influence — and posits that it is so pervasive in our contemporary culture, so slyly insidious, that to try and write anything other than an homage (of some sort at least) is to be willfully, woefully ignorant. The sentiment here is that nothing is new under the sun — nothing has ever been new under the sun — and, consciously or not, every writer writes nothing but homages of varying degrees every time he or she sets pen to paper, finger to keyboard.
Winner of the 2010 Furniture Press Poetry Prize, Joshua Ware’s Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley acknowledges the above postulation in a variety of often jarring ways, ones rarely seen in contemporary American poetry. “I believe in secrecy, that is, in the power of falsity, rather than in representing things in a way that manifests a lamentable faith in accuracy and truth,” Ware — by way of the influential French theorist and philosopher Gilles Deleuze — writes in the poem “bringing you closer to what you speed from.” This belief, then, permeates the entire collection: that which is secret and unknowable is more poignant and powerful than something wholly open-faced, glaringly transparent, and thus representative of a “lamentable faith,” one arguably half-didactic.
Going back over fifty years, the lineage and history of Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is half-complex, but it can fairly easily be reduced to two key players: poets Jack Spicer and Rod Smith (and not the poem’s namesake, Robert Creeley, whose person and work is not directly referenced or mentioned in any of the three works). In his 1960 collection The Heads of the Town up to the Aether, West Coast Renaissance poet and noted contrarian Jack Spicer wrote the initial “Homage to Creeley,” a long poem that made up a third of the content of The Heads of the Town up to the Aether. Dedicated to Jacques Cegeste, a character in Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus (part of Cocteau’s famed Orphic Trilogy), Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley” discourses often tantalizingly obliquely on a variety of subjects: hell, Joan of Arc, the American novelist Booth Tarkington, the sound of the voice of Cegeste, and, perhaps most pertinently, the various loves and would-be-loves of “The Poet” (“Love isn’t proud enough to hate / The stranger at its gate / That says and does / Or strong enough to return … What was”). Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley” is essentially a clever, caustic farce, one that often references its own “failure” (especially with regards to the direct, open-faced nature of what Spicer believes a proper homage poem might consist of). Poetically the most interesting aspect of the poem is its set of “Explanatory Notes”: directly beneath each lineated portion of the poem there is a solid black line and below it, in prose, an “Explanatory Note” that ostensibly purports to explicate the lineated work above it. Yet — in typical Spicer fashion — many of these “Notes” roundly refuse to elucidate anything for the reader. In contrast, some of them go out of their way to further complicate matters. With the lineated portion of the poem reading in its entirety “Our father that art in heaven / Christmas be thy name / Our father that art in hell / We’ll tell / Them,” the “Explanatory Note” for “ Prayer for My Daughter” reads, in part, “Jim discovered Christmas and the diamond in the back of the diamond. In spite of The Poet’s invention of his name … Hell is where we place ourselves when we wish to look upward. Eurydice and Orpheus and Hermes were all simpleminded” (274).
At just thirty-one pages, Spicer’s “Homage to Creeley” poem is fairly short and — with the exception of the distinctive, deceptively playful “Explanatory Notes” — in the context of his entire oeuvre not particularly notable. But Spicer is a poet that since his premature death, in 1965, has become increasingly widely read outside his adopted hometown of San Francisco. His “Homage” captured the attention of a multitude of different poets, one of them Rod Smith. Included as the last section of his 2007 book Deed, Rod Smith’s “Homage to Homage to Creeley” is, at just five pages, far shorter than Spicer’s poem. It essentially takes up where Spicer’s poem left off, albeit forty-seven years later. In the penultimate poem of the section, “The Life of a Dime,” Smith writes in the lineated portion of the poem:
“A dime does not think.
This makes it enigmatic.
The dime thinks “I do not think”
“This makes me enigmatic”
A bad poet might then write
“A penny for your thoughts”
This would not be worth a dime”
In the accompanying “Explanatory Note” for “The Life of a Dime” Smith (just like Spicer before him) roundly refuses to explain nearly anything about the poem that sits above said note:
The erotic idea of a or the erotic dime is a dense erotic eroticism of erotic
longing says the bread & circus thief to the analyst, erotically.
Old dimes are removed from circulation & treasured. Or melted down.
Does this resemble consciousness? I still love you.
Taken as a whole, “The Life of a Dime” presents many of the hallmarks that Spicer’s “Homage” poem did. Pervading in it there is simultaneously an ironic slyness — “The dime thinks ‘I do not think’” — and an unreserved earnestness —“I still love you” — that endearingly mystifies the reader, plain and simple.
Sans an “Explanatory Note,” Smith’s final “Homage to Homage to Creeley” poem, “pour le CGT,” reads in its entirety: “We work too hard. / We’re too tired / To fall in love. / Therefore we must / Overthrow the government” (87). The CGT being the French General Confederation of Labor, one of the major trade unions in France, “pour le CGT” ends both “Homage to Homage to Creeley” and Deed on a wholly satisfying note, one that of course answers a question that has yet to be asked. On a syntactical level the poem is straightforward enough — but why exactly is the poem dedicated to the French General Confederation of Labor? Why not “Overthrow the government” here, there and everywhere? Like Spicer before him, Smith isn’t telling, and although the black line across the page is still there, “pour le CGT’s” “Explanatory Note” is left entirely blank. Within the context of the now-established “Homage to Creeley” tradition, however, one can’t help but desire it any other way.
Ware, then, does both Spicer and Smith one better. Consisting of three sections and over double the length of “Homage to Creeley,” Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley continues the set “Homage” formula — lineated poem with accompanying “Explanatory Note” — but in many ways extends it even further than Ware’s predecessors did. The book begins with a dedication page to “Jack Spicer’s Ghost and Rod Smith,” a dedication that it is immediately made clear is little more than a “ploy to fill an unspecified function. While unspecified, the ploy’s failure should evident, nonetheless, to readers.” Whereas Spicer invoked the persona of “The Poet” in his “Homage to Creeley,” Ware utilizes “the poets,” and he furthermore plays up the nature of his debt to Spicer and Smith. Language from and allusions to Spicer’s work show up throughout, whereas Rod Smith’s persona is a recurring figure in the book, albeit one that — via the same dedication page — “is a pseudonym for a former lover of the poets; the proper noun Rod Smith is not a reference to the poet Rod Smith.” Over the course of the collection Ware plays up the always tenuous nature of identity, both poetic and literal: in the “Explanatory Note” of a later poem he writes, “The poets once asked: “Why should you assume that ‘the poets’ are us? We have almost nothing in common.”
Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is a dense, occasionally openly divided volume: the word ripe does not do justice to how many historical, political and poetical references are encased in the book. In its first section, “Termination Shock,” one learns how “[French theorist Jacques] Derrida’s concept of grafting” can be understood poetically, the significance Bob Dylan’s motorcycle crash on July 29, 1966, had on “the poets,” some of the often-nonsensical rules —“Keep your Nails clean and Short, also your Hands and Teeth Clean yet without Shewing any great concern for them” — included in George Washington’s 1748 tome Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation (Washington’s stern visage appears on the cover of Smith’s Deed), why “the poets” reject gravity as a “once-upon-a-time story,” and the nature of mimetic art in contemporary society. And all those references appear in just the first half of the book’s first section, each in a separate “Explanatory Note.” Many of the lineated poems in the volume, then, are lyric in nature, some ringing with homophonic language. Taken from the poem “The form it now maintains is only the illusion of fullness,” the phrase maple tree appears as “May / pull tree”; in “at any moment. / What else” the word elegy reads: “Elle, O gee!” Ware’s reasoning for incorporating such phraseology is no doubt one of expectation, or rather the thwarting of such. When reading a poem (or piece of prose, for that matter) the reader expects to see the word maple tree exactly written as such; elegy is elegy is an elegy. Yet homophones force the reader to understand each word and phrase in ways rarely encountered. In the “Explanatory Note” to “Blushing to a Concrete City,” Ware discusses Louis and Celia Zukofsky’s homophonic translation of Catullus, a translation that endeavored to capture “the sound, rhythm, and syntax” of the original, “instead of replicating its semantics,” and in many of the homophone-based lyric poems in the book Ware attempts a linguistic complication of a similar sort.
This is the same out-of-the-box reasoning that dedicates Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley to “Jack Spicer’s Ghost” and a “Rod Smith [that] is not a reference to the poet Rod Smith.” And just like Spicer and Smith before him, Ware very rarely directly explains each lineated poem in the included “Explanatory Note.” Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley thus asks something different of its readers than most poems or volumes of poetry tend to, and there is really no one way to “read” the book; its multiplicity is seemingly endless, and the fact that so much of its “poetry” is actually in “Explanatory Note” prose further aggravates matters. There are also — somewhat problematically — no page numbers included in the collection. One can’t recommend to a friend the poem “Eris” “on page 74”; instead he or she is forced to mutter, “I really liked the poem ‘Eris’ — it’s kind of near the back but not all the way at the end.” Although again thwarting reader expectation, the lack of page numbers in Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is the most frustrating aspect of the book since — unlike every other linguistic, conceptual, and poetic device Ware utilizes throughout each of its three sections — there seems to be no clear aesthetic rationale behind it.
A number of quotes in Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley might encapsulate the volume as a whole, among them: “Poetry … should be considered a multiplicity if one has any chance of understanding it, or better stated, moving comfortably through and within it” (“cities / thought becomes”), or: “The problem with being numerous is a problem of memory: everything eventually dissipates … no matter how well documented. Something new emerges” (“A Kiss Less Consecrated”). The two most pertinent to the collection, however, appear in “But, Since I Am a Dog, Beware My Fangs,” the final poem of the first section of the book. In the “Explanatory Note,” Ware quotes two statements made by the conceptual American artist Sol LeWitt. The first reads: “When words such as painting or sculpture are used, they connote a whole tradition and imply a consequent acceptance of this tradition thus placing limitations on the artist who would be reluctant to make art that goes beyond the limitations”; “Illogical judgements (sic) lead to new experience,” states the second. Within the context of the lineage, scope, and form of Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley, it is of course no accident that Ware chose these two LeWitt statements to quote. “When words” alludes to the fact that the book Ware has chosen to write is one that simultaneously accepts and reacts against “tradition” and “limitation.” By writing a volume so firmly entrenched in the “Homage” mode as written and conceived by Spicer and Smith before him, Ware accepts, even flaunts, tradition’s necessity. Yet at more than double the length of Spicer’s initial “Homage to Creeley,” not so subtly dedicating itself to “Jack Spicer’s Ghost” and a “Rod Smith” that “is not a reference to the poet Rod Smith” (one that instead is “a former lover of the poets”), Ware’s Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley insists that the “limitations” placed on his work will be ones negotiated and accepted by him and him alone. And “Illogical judgements (sic) lead to new experience” by virtue of their sheer newness: elegy is not spelled “Elle, O gee” but one appreciates the word differently when it is done so; “Art / amiss” forces a different understanding of Greek goddess Artemis’s possible being and nature. Ware thus plays up the infinitude of language’s every possible permutation, and Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley’s reader comes away with a greater respect for language’s elasticity and durability as a result of his frequent manipulations.
Involved, long, occasionally obfuscating, Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is not a book for everyone (is any?). What Ware accomplishes in the collection is noteworthy, however, especially in terms of how refreshingly distinct the Homage is relative to so much contemporary American poetry. Ware dares to forgo what Tony Hoagland describes as the prevalent current aesthetic of “goofiness, with its quick-sequenced non-sequitur enactment of clever, addled adolescence,” or simply “cluelessness” as a “characteristic pose[s].” Although Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley is only his first full-length collection, Ware’s is a voice that heralds something more forceful, something new, and perhaps eventually something that shall garner an “Homage to Ware” work of his own. And a failure his Homage is not.