Monday, December 08, 2014

Stray Notes (Walking)


Out of yesterday’s tramp. Twenty acres of turnips gone unharvested, rotting in the earth: their local cloying stench unbuffeted by the breeze. A bald eagle, immature, strafing forty or so mallards, who erupt into the sun, and a bevy of goldeneye, who dive, remarkably, in concert. A great horned owl (Leonard Preserve) stuck like a paper bag up in a Norway spruce, unmoving. Kestrels partout, three on wires along the road. One hovering interminably, tail splayed, correcting minutely, and diving into tall grass, quarry hid. A brown creeper flitting and nervous, continually recommencing its whorl up a trunk. To stand among oaks, their strewn browns and coppers, to look down into the variable gray entanglements of a buttonbush swamp. (Think of Thoreau’s huzzahs in “Walking” for “the impervious and quaking swamps”: “When, formerly, I have analyzed my partiality for some farm which I had contemplated purchasing, I have frequently found that I was attracted solely by a few square rods of impermeable and unfathomable bog—a natural sink in one corner of it.”)

Writing it down, “to preserve the mind’s chastity.”

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Stray Notes (Patrick O’Brian, Thomas Pynchon, &c.)


Patrick O’Brian, 1914-2000

Reading, of late, with something akin to preternatural joy and astonishment, the “Yarn-Spinner” Patrick O’Brian. The epithet is Pynchon’s, out of Mason & Dixon (1997):
      “Cheerly. Cheerly, then, Lads. . . .”
      “Excuse me, Captain, problem with the Euphroes again.”
      “Get O’Brian up here, then, if it’s about Euphroes, he’s the one to see.”
      “Hey t’en, Pat. Scribblin’ again, are ye? More Sea Stories?” Not only does O’Brian know all there is to know and more ’pon the Topick of Euphroes, and Rigging even more obscure,—he’s also acknowledg’d as the best Yarn-Spinner in all the Fleets. “Euphroe Detail again.”
      They are in the southern Latitudes at last, hence the need for Awnings . . .
I love it. Anachronistickal kudos by a tar. Slipped into another yarn’s interstices. (Euphroe, Uphroe, Uvrou: out of the Dutch juffrouw, also juffer dead-eye, literally, “maiden.” Crowfeet dead-eyes. “Uphroe, an oblong block made of ash . . . used to suspend the awnings.”)

Out of O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970):
      On his knees, and with his chin level with the top of the table, Stephen watched the male mantis step cautiously towards the female mantis. She was a fine strapping green specimen, and she stood upright on her four back legs, her front pair dangling devoutly; from time to time a tremor caused her heavy body to oscillate over the thin suspending limbs, and each time the brown male shot back. He advanced lengthways, with his body parallel to the table-top, his long, toothed, predatory front legs stretching out tentatively and his antennae trained forwards: even in this strong light Stephen could see the curious inner glow of his big oval eyes.
      The female deliberately turned her head through forty-five degrees, as though looking at him. ‘Is this recognition?’ asked Stephen, raising his magnifying glass to detect some possible movement in her feelers. ‘Consent?’
      The brown male certainly thought it was, and in three strides he was upon her; his legs gripped her wing-covers; his antennae found hers and began to stroke them. Apart from a vibratory, well-sprung quiver at the additional weight, she made no apparent response, no resistance; and in a little while the strong orthopterous copulation began. Stephen set his watch and noted down the time in a book, open upon the floor.
      Minutes passed. The male shifted his hold a little. The female moved her triangular head, pivoting it slightly from left to right. Through his glass Stephen could see her sideways jaws open and close; then there was a blur of movements so rapid that for all his care and extreme attention he could not follow them, and the male’s head was off, clamped there, a detached lemon, under the crook of her green praying arms. She bit into it, and the eye’s glow went out; on her back the headless male continued to copulate rather more strongly than before, all his inhibitions having been removed. ‘Ah,’ said Stephen with intense satisfaction, and noted down the time again.
      Ten minutes later the female took off three pieces of her mate’s long thorax, above the upper coxal joint, and ate them with every appearance of appetite, dropping crumbs of chitinous shell in front of her. The male copulated on, still firmly anchored by his back legs.
Stephen Maturin, amateur naturalist (and ’cellist), surgeon aboard the Sophie. “Strong orthopterous copulation”* is simply a delight, and so, too, “a detached lemon.” The whole rather unparalleled—funny, precise, euphonious. One thinks of Jean-Henri Fabre’s numerous Souvenirs entomologiques and other writings about insects. Fabre, translated by Bernard Miall, out of Social Life in the Insect World (1911):
      We are near the end of August. The male Mantis, a slender and elegant lover, judges the time to be propitious. He makes eyes at his powerful companion; he turns his head towards her; he bows his neck and raises his thorax. His little pointed face almost seems to wear an expression. For a long time he stands thus motionless, in contemplation of the desired one. The latter, as though indifferent, does not stir. Yet the lover has seized upon a sign of consent: a sign of which I do not know the secret. He approaches: suddenly he erects his wings, which are shaken with a convulsive tremor.
      This is his declaration. He throws himself timidly on the back of his corpulent companion; he clings to her desperately, and steadies himself. The prelude to the embrace is generally lengthy, and the embrace will sometimes last for five or six hours.
      Nothing worthy of notice occurs during this time. Finally the two separate, but they are soon to be made one flesh in a much more intimate fashion. If the poor lover is loved by his mistress as the giver of fertility, she also loves him as the choicest of game. During the day, or at latest on the morrow, he is seized by his companion, who first gnaws through the back of his neck, according to use and wont, and then methodically devours him, mouthful by mouthful, leaving only the wings. Here we have no case of jealousy, but simply a depraved taste.
And: “I once surprised a male, apparently in the performance of his vital functions, holding the female tightly embraced—but he had no head, no neck, scarcely any thorax! The female, her head turned over her shoulder, was peacefully browsing on the remains of her lover! And the masculine remnant, firmly anchored, continued its duty!” Source material for O’Brian? Because of the way “consent” seemingly makes a pivot-point in both Fabre and O’Brian, I reckon so.
* I note a little sadly that in the endless lumping and splitting continuum of systematics, mantises no longer belong to the order Orthoptera, now being classified amongst the Dictyoptera.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Stray Notes (Cy Twombly, John Berger, &c.)


Cy Twombly, 1928-2011

Cy Twombly, out of David Sylvester’s Interviews with American Artists (2001):
. . . It’s a sort of infantile thing, painting. Paint in a sense is a certain infantile thing. I mean in the handling. I start out using a brush but then I can’t take the time because the idea doesn’t correspond, it gets stuck when the brush goes out of paint in a certain length of time. So I have to go back and by then I might have lost the rest of it. So I take my hand and I do it. Or I have those wonderful things that came in later: paintsticks. Because the pencil also breaks if the canvas is too rough. So I had to find things that I could use, like my hands or the paintsticks. I can carry through the impetus till it stops. It’s continual. . . . I use earth things and certain human things as symbols for earth—like it might be excrement but it’s earth. And I did those charts, big palettes . . . two or three paintings with palettes and all of the colours—pink, flesh, brown, red for blood. And I think with most painters you can think and it can change very fast, the impetus of what something is. It’s instinctive in a certain kind of painting, not as if you were painting an object or special things, but it’s like coming through the nervous system. It’s like a nervous system. It’s not described, it’s happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning. It’s like I’m experiencing something frightening, I’m experiencing the thing and I have to be at that state because I’m also going.
To be ambuscaded by like seizures, to accede to the lingo’s grunt-intelligibility, jouissance, palaver and blab. To be led across the language-scape by the ineradicable rut of merely going. Writing unrestrained by anything beyond its own flaunted and peccable music. (O’Hara: “You just go on your nerve.”) Twombly: “I’m a painter and my whole balance is not having to think about things. So all I think about is painting. It’s the instinct for the placement where all that happens. I don’t have to think about it. . . . So I don’t think of composition . . .”

John Berger, out of “Post-Scriptum,” a note found in Audible Silence: Cy Twombly at Daros (2002):
      It has been said that Cy Twombly’s paintings resemble writing, or are a kind of écriture. Certain critics have seen parallels between his canvases and wall graffiti. This makes sense. In my experience, however, his paintings refer to more than all the walls I pass in cities and gaze at, or the walls on which I too once scrawled names and drew diagrams; his paintings, as I see them, touch upon something fundamental to a writer’s relationship with her or his language.
      A writer continually struggles for clarity against the language he’s using or, more accurately, against the common usage of that language. He doesn’t see language with the readability and clarity of something printed out. He sees it, rather, as a terrain full of illegibilities, hidden paths, impasses, surprises, and obscurities. Its map is not a dictionary but the whole of literature and perhaps everything ever said. Its obscurities, its lost senses, its self-effacements come about for many reasons—because of the way words modify each other, write themselves over each other, cancel one another out, because the unsaid always counts for as much, or more, than the said, and because language can never cover what it signifies. Language is always an abbreviation.
      It was Proust who once remarked that all true poetry consists of words written in a foreign language. Every one of us is born with a mother tongue. Yet poetry is motherless.
      I’ll try to make what I’m saying simpler. From time to time I exchange letters and drawings with a Spanish friend. I do not (unhappily) speak Spanish, I know a few words, and I can use a dictionary. Often in the letters I receive there are quotations in Spanish from poets—Borges, Juarroz, Neruda, Lorca. And I reply with other quotations of poems in Spanish, which I have sought out. The letters are hand-written and, as I carefully trace the letters of strange words in what is to me a foreign tongue, I have the sense, as at no other time, of walking in the furrows of a poem, across the terrain of poetry.
      Cy Twombly’s paintings are for me landscapes of this foreign and yet familiar terrain. Some of them appear to be laid out under a blinding noon sun, others have been found by touch at night. In neither case can any dictionary of words be referred to, for the light does not allow it. . . .
What Proust said (out of “Notes on Literature and Criticism” found in Against Sainte-Beuve—being a gathering of “comments scattered through Proust’s notebooks”):
      Beautiful books are written in a sort of foreign language. Beneath each word each one of us puts his own meaning or at least his own image, which is often a misinterpretation. But in beautiful books all our misinterpretations are beautiful.
Pertinently, Proust notes too: “the great French writers do not know much French.”

Cy Twombly, “Ferragosto II,” 1961

Cy Twombly, “Untitled (Bolsena),” 1969

Cy Twombly, “Untitled,” 1968/1971

Cy Twombly, “Untitled (A Painting in 3 Parts),” 1992

Cy Twombly, “Lepanto V,” 2001

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Roy Fisher’s An Easily Bewildered Child: Occasional Prose 1963-2013


Roy Fisher
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Reading Roy Fisher’s entirely captivating (and seemingly effortless) prose. Collected in the Peter Robinson-edited An Easily Bewildered Child: Occasional Prose 1963-2013 (Shearsman, 2014). Fisher’s wry and slightly diffident voice there in that terrific opening line (out of a 2012 piece called “Meanwhile”): “An easily bewildered child, I nevertheless had no problem in hanging on to the idea that sewn like a lining inside the customary world there was another with tones and imperatives of its own.” The piece includes a fine appreciation of Gael Turnbull, who included Fisher’s work in a British number of Cid Corman’s Origin (and whose Migrant Press published Fisher’s first pamphlet, the 1961 City):
He opened things up and licensed me to go on writing. Trying to characterize the unique nature of his presence in the poetry scene I’m reminded of the stratified social system of Imperial Japan, where the rigid levels of aristocracy and peasantry held sandwiched between them the Floating World of administrators, artists and the like who had fewer obligations and more freedom. Having virtually no contact with the poetry establishment (particularly in England, though America and eventually his native Scotland found him easier to value) and instinctively staying clear of the activities of self-congratulatory but incurious amateurism, he could roam free in the floating world of little magazines and quixotic publications. He had a nose for what he considered honest work and had no preconceptions about where to go looking for it. He distrusted anything smooth, slick or subsidised: his predilection for issuing tiny editions, mostly of his own work, in booklets hand-sewn with covers of wallpaper offcuts, the texts on the poorest quality paper and made with obsolete basic technology, was proverbial.
In the longer “Antebiography” Fisher details the consequences of being included in the British Origin number (“I was no Black Mountain poet; I was just another muffled English provincial eccentric. But I was certainly well outside the neat, socially orientated orthodox poetic, which had neither appeal nor meaning for me. I couldn’t even mimic it . . .”) and meeting Turnbull in 1956, who acquaints him with the work of the burgeoning New American Poetry:
      I went home and tackled my writing from a new direction. I had already on occasion used chance operations to begin poems I didn’t think important; now I used such methods extensively—usually short phrases picked at random . . . The main effect of the method was to get me out of my own way. This was very necessary. I’d grown up with no trace of the compact self which most other people seemed to have; instead I had a diffused zone in which ad hoc selves would be generated for temporary purposes, and then dissolve again. Establishing a usable, consistent self was later to prove a lengthy business, like growing a windbreak. The self I’d tried in those days to fix as a writing persona was just a kind of self-important bruise, a posture. It got in the way, and didn’t ring true. Once rid of it, though, I could get at observations, memories, earlier selves, lost feelings, casual things—reality, in short—and my clotted language cleared like a cloudy liquid left to settle.
Brilliance in the offhand (and funny) metaphors: “like growing a windbreak.” The too-earnest (whatever’s too weighty, grave, or momentous) thus kept at bay, relegating the self and its endless tutorials to something akin to a home-improvement project. Pertinent, too, some lines out of Fisher’s “Poet on Writing” (originally written for the 1992 Denise Riley-edited Poets on Writing: Britain, 1970-1991):
      I’m either writing—physically making a creature of blackish marks on whitish paper—or I’m not. At such times I’m willing to admit that I’m a poet, but at others the persona doesn’t exist. It’s almost unthinkable for me to experience the arrival of what I recognise as the movement or form of a poem simply as a mental or a vocal thing. I have first to be setting words down and shifting them about in my inhibited, brain-wrenching, left-handed script. It may well be that when I write I use, as a formal constraint, the residue of the early difficulty I had over learning to hold a pen and move it across the paper in an unnatural direction. I’m a glib and garrulous talker, given to branching sentences that forget their own beginnings; but in order to get me to write them down, word-patterns have to have at least a claim on permanency. And it’s in the time of their being turned into marks that they make themselves audible to me: then I hear the chime of a phrase back and forth along its length. The muttering voice—which isn’t quite mine—in my head speaks them, and sometimes I’ll sound them aloud, Always, before passing a version as final.
And:
I don’t see a poem of mine as a setting for myself as a character, a composition which can in some sense contain me; instead it’s something found and formed within my boundaries and then, maybe, projected out into the language-exchange to try its luck. This view drastically affects the way I compose. For while my relations with other people are—or so they seem to me—extremely simple for the most part, and certainly not likely to generate much in the way of paperwork, my relations with my own inner life are complex, shifting, and bulky, and over several decades they've produced a great heap of notebooks and journals. Although this mass of observations, sensations and introspections is inchoate, and undeveloped except by movements of its own tides, I’ve come to think of it, rather than the poems, as my work, my central occupation. It’s supremely useless to anyone but me. It doesn’t progress towards becoming a system. It gives an air of fitful authority, as if somebody had dropped the contents of the I Ching and then stuffed them back together haphazardly. Indeed, I use it as a disorderly private oracle. I can move about in it, guided by its skeins of metaphors, elliptical jargon and obsessively-acquired images, and most of the recurrent tones and images of my finished poems have first identified themselves to me by the way they feature insistently in the notebooks.
Something entirely refreshing about Fisher’s casual unconcern with all the (rather meretricious, generally) trappings of the poet beyond that “making a creature of blackish marks on whitish paper.” Some plausibly rare integrity at work. An honorable focus, no allegiance beyond the word. Fisher’s means to compose: “I quieten language down to zero: a blank page and a silence in the head. Then when the words start to come I make the text with a very simple forward progression, aiming to bring each section to a finished state as I go. Not a lapidary technique, allowing for later substitutions; more like fresco painting, where images quickly become fixed and unalterable. As the work proceeds, every new line or patch has its nature guided by the whole of what’s gone before, and, preferably by no other factors.” Compare with these lines out of Fisher’s “Handsworth Liberties”—out of The Thing About Joe Sullivan (1978): “At the end of the familiar, / throwing away the end / of the first energy, regardless; / nothing for getting home with— // if there’s more / it rises from under the first / step into the strange / and under the next and goes on / lifting up all the way; // nothing has a history. The most / gnarled things are all new, // mercurial tongues / dart in at the mouth, / in at the ears . . .”

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pound and Music (Stray Notes)


Ezra Pound, 1885-1972

Out, Saturday morning, under irregular sun, to what the county maps call Watkins Lake, a lake bisected (or pierced) by a narrow dirt road: locals call it Thorn Lake. Cold—mid-twenties—with a skiff of snow. Waterfowl (“Water foules haue bytwene theyr toes and clawes as it were a skynne . . .”): hooded mergansers, gadwalls, canvasbacks, and hundreds of ruddy ducks, tails aslant. The usual vociferous Canada geese. Four snow geese tending to the outskirts. Coots un peu partout. Driving out, stopped at the farm pond off Schneider Road: a single American kestrel doing its manœuvres washed by sunlight the color of turpentine. Rust and slate, ineffable rust and slate. Tromped the Leonard Preserve through the increasingly cloud-blotted day: a conniption of eastern bluebirds, a solitary red-headed woodpecker, a broken file of deer moving like spooks through the snow-scrimmed red pines.



Bumping around Pound again, Pound the inexhaustible. Something out of “Mr Housman at Little Bethel,” c. 1934:
I am unqualified to speak of exalted sentiment, but I should say no idea worth carrying in the mind from one year’s end to another, and no story really good enough to make me at least want to tell it, but chafes at the flatness of prose, but suffers from inadequate statement, but leaves me feeling it is but half said, or said in abstraction, defined in terms so elastic that any god’s ape can stretch its definition to meet his own squalor or to fit his own imbecility, until it be conjoined with music, or at least given rhythmic definition even though one do not arrive at defining its tonal articulation.
“Conjoined with music.” Meaning caught by the throat. Verbiage bit into rhythmic chunks, to sap the usual slurry mayhem, to make distinct a structure. (Pound, reviewing the pianist Arthur Rubinstein in 1920, notes approvingly: “a solidity of rhythm, the whole like a set of taut steel cables whirling, seizing and holding the auditor; a barbaric noise, splendidly structural . . .”) Or think of Pound’s line in “Music and Brains” (1936): “I have heard Yeats read poems that had no rhythm of their own, poems that had no more metric force and validity than you can find in a mashed potato, and by imposing a rhythm of his own on the formless verbiage, give it a transient and passing life.” Out of the 1917 note “Vers Libre and Arnold Dolmetsch”:
      Poetry is a composition of words set to music. Most other definitions of it are indefensible, or metaphysical. The proportion or quality of the music may, and does, vary; but poetry withers and “dries out” when it leaves music, or at least an imagined music, too far behind it. . . .
      Poets who are not interested in music are, or become, bad poets. I would almost say that poets should never be too long out of touch with musicians. Poets who will not study music are defective. I do not mean that they need become virtuosi, or that they need necessarily undergo the musical curriculum of their time. It is perhaps their value that they can be a little refractory and heretical, for all arts tend to decline into the stereotype; and at all times the mediocre tend or try, semi-consciously or unconsciously, to obscure the fact that the day's fashion is not the immutable.
Tonic against a gone sedulousness, a former (supposed) diligence of making (now) corrupted. (“A body may be fordoo and corrupted, for hit is i-made of contrarie þinges.”)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Creeley’s Letters


Robert Creeley, c. 1955
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Sundry gleanings out of the pages of The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley (2014), the oddly reassuring human rub of the “merely” factual. How Creeley’s Divers Press in Mallorca printed—along with books by “the usual suspects” of Olson, Duncan, Blackburn, &c.—A Handbook of Fancy Pigeons (1954), by H. P. Macklin (“who writes a series of articles in the Am/ Pigeon Journal (who is buying out the edition, for distribution etc) on divers odd & out-of-fashion breeds.”) Noted in a letter to Cid Corman dated “December 24, 1954.” Creeley, of neighbor Robert Graves: “Just now I’m trying to locate a good pair of Homers for Graves—who plans to use them for communication between Deya & Palma—very funny.” In that letter, too, Creeley reports: “We just got a monkey—very lovely little thing, a lady, etc. I’ve always wanted one . . .”

How—to a page of a “July 15, 1952” letter to Charles Olson—Creeley stuck a photograph of “two hands shaping pottery on a wheel.” And thence wrote:
Just saw this photograph. Someday wd be very great to do book, i.e., not to ‘do’ book, but if it happened so, with just such things interspersed without comment.
                                                                                                                                            So that text would have equivalent in visual, i.e., pictures. Both as ‘rest’ for the reader, and pulling out of his sense of content generally, i.e.,—so he gets it everywhere, is present in a multiplicity of things.
                                          Not as ‘illustration’ but as like things. It could be good. I mean, real wide play,—of things like this, bits of cloth, anything that had relevance.
Anticipating W. G. Sebald’s photograph-punctuated prose. Or I think of Susan Howe’s “Fragment of the Wedding Dress of Sarah Pierpont Edwards” in Souls of the Labadie Tract (2007), the blue swatch pictured therein.

How Jack Spicer apparently attempted to join the gang teaching at Black Mountain—Creeley writing (“September 5, 1955”): “under any other circumstances but those which we now face, I’m certain that the college would be very interested in your qualifications as a possible addition to the faculty . . .” Think of Spicer there in the Carolina highlands, with no ocean: “The grand concord of what / does not stoop to definition.”

How earnestly Creeley riffs regarding Charlie Parker’s rhythmic concision and variance. In a “July 19, 1953” letter to Olson, he calls Parker, rather awkwardly, “one of the most substantial users of what time can do in any business.” And tries to apply Parker’s acuity to verse:
That thing of cutting an 1/8th off the quarter, etc., is it, and the precision of such rhythms so got is a) the necessary fine-ness of the intention and b) the greater potential of variation then possible. I.e., what bugs either one of us, in the old biz of closed verse, or any such partitioning of potential forms, etc., is the damn loss of variation effected. Not, to grant them the obvious, that infinite variation within the given isn’t also possible, etc., etc., but that total set is pre-determined. Bird, in any case, first man importantly, call it, to stress the vertical potential of the melodic line, and by vertical I think I mean much of what you have always meant, i.e., that emphasis on the single & total content of any one word or note therein occurring without an overstress on projection-along-a-line, or what they loosely call ‘sequence’, or what you’ve called horizontalism. What I’m trying to say, in any case: that Bird manages single content of the note, call it, in conjunction with total content, and/or its place in the whole structure of the melody, etc., etc. Whereas, say, usual ‘modern song’ goes along, etc., i.e., moves from note to note (and gains our patience or impatience only in same), Bird clears notes one by fucking one, and reasserts a rhythmic structure with each note posited. Myself, I think you go back to Bach before you ever find it done quite so clearly.
The “single & total content of any one word” recalling (again) Olson’s “whatever you have to say, leave / the roots on, let them / dangle / / And the dirt / / Just to make clear / where they come from.” (Knocking briefly around looking for Olson’s “horizontalism” I find, out of a letter postmarked “10 August 1950” to Frances Boldereff: “we are a perpendicular axis of planes which are constantly being intersected by horizontal planes of experience coming in from the past (coming up from the ground—or, like you say, that underground tide) and going out to the future . . . it is at the innumerable points of intersection that images and events spring up which are like tastes in the mouth . . .” Certes, the spatial metaphor of “COMPOSITION BY FIELD”—“no track other than the one the poem under hand declares”—in Olson’s “Projective Verse” is one of unprepossessed horizontality. Odd how Creeley’s evident disdain for “usual ‘modern song’” that “moves from note to note” might be read against Olson’s shout that “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION.”)

How Creeley, writing to William Carlos Williams after reviewing the Williams’s Selected Essays (“the goddamn review—it was a messy (my messiness, that is), difficult job”), and quibbling therein about Williams’s writings about “measure” (“the ‘relatively stable foot’ called for in ‘On Measure,’ . . . is, I think, a confusion. To take literally the first of the sentence, ‘The line must be measured to be in measure . . . ,’ is to involve oneself in an obviously vicious circle. No poem was ever written ‘in this direction.’”), quotes Thomas Campion, who claimed “he wrote to no measure”:
                Kinde are her answeres,
                But her performance keeps no day;
Breaks time, as dancers
                From their own Musicke when they stray . . .
And quotes, too, a few lines out of Ben Jonson’s “A Fit of Rime Against Rime”: “Still may Syllabes jarre with time, / Still may reason warre with rime, / Resting never.” So lovely as to occlude the argument.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Stray Notes (Robert Creeley, Hugh Kenner, Frank O’Hara, &c.)


Robert Creeley, 1926-2005
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Prompted by Creeley’s ferocity in reacting to Hugh Kenner’s The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951)—see the “April 18th, 1951” letter addressed to Denise Levertov and Mitchell Goodman in the Selected Letters
Read Kenner’s damn bk/—THAT is horrible. Christly pompous style he’s got: “When the widow of Ernest Fenollosa perceived that the poet of Lustra was ideally fitted to work into articulated forms, etc., etc., etc.” Very hard to even get THRU that one—incidentally, it continues (on the book-page) for five more lines. Ending, “ . . . of penetrating an utterly alien poetic method from which unworn procedures and formulations might be drawn . . . ” O/ utterly!

Fuck that.
—I took a look at the Kenner. Usual Kenneresque fulsome narrativity (recall the masterly opening salvo of The Pound Era, twenty years later: “Toward the evening of a gone world, the light of its last summer pouring into a Chelsea street found and suffused the red waistcoast of Henry James, lord of decorum, en promenade, exposing his Boston niece to the tone of things.” A sentence the impeccable stylist Guy Davenport’d cotton, indubitably, to—indeed, it could well commence a Davenport récit . . .) Here’s Kenner’s opening to the “Cathay” chapter:
      When the widow of Ernest Fenollosa perceived that the poet of Lustra was ideally fitted to work into articulated form the notes and cribs on certain early Chinese poems assembled by her husband, Pound for the first time had the opportunity at once of consolidating his new modes of poetic speech and of penetrating an utterly alien poetic method from which unworn procedures and formulations might be drawn. The importance of Fenollosa essay on the Chinese Written Character needs no emphasis. The technical importance of the Cathay translations, in preparing for the Cantos, probably still deserves a page or two.*
“Probably still deserves a page or two.” Out of the “Christly pompous” and into the incidental, the casual, the off the cuff. Creeley seemingly apt to miss the range of the proceedings. I recall here remarks Frank O’Hara makes—talking with Edward Lucie-Smith in a 1965 interview reprinted in Standing Still and Walking in New York. O’Hara’s talking about the range of new American poetries, and puts the pleasures of a kind of maximalist barrage up against a pointedly countering impetus, that of a paring down, and a need for “control”. O’Hara:
It’s, you know, the sort of tumultuous outpouring of images which then get themselves together into being a poem, somehow. But you do have the excitement of seeing whether you’re really going to get it to be a poem or not. You know, or is it just going to be a . . . But of course with the influence of Levertov and Creeley you have another element which is making control practically the subject matter of the poem. That is your control of language, your control of the experiences and your control of your thought. . . . It is amazing that Creeley puts as many vowels in as Levertov, and the amazing thing is that where they’ve pared down the diction so that the experience presumably will come through as strongly as possible, it’s the experience of their paring it down that comes through more strongly and not the experience that is the subject . . .
And isn’t Creeley’s complaint with Kenner one, finally, of diction? “O/ utterly!”
* In The Pound Era Kenner ties Mary Fenollosa’s choosing of Pound for the “notes and cribs” to Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”:
. . . which early in 1913 he had instructed Harriet Monroe to print thus:
The apparition         of these faces         in the crowd:
Petals         on a wet, black bough.
—two lines, five phases of perception. Later typesetters, thinking this queer, have closed up the spaces. There is no indication that he was thinking of Chinese characters when he grouped sensations that way, but he was clearly ready for the gift Mary Fenollosa made him during that year, prompted, it appears, by the command of idiom displayed in that poem and in 11 others of the Contemporania group in the April 1913 Poetry.
The pages of material, Kenner notes, “demanded not an editor but a poet.” “Fenollosa himself had written that ‘the purpose of poetical translation is the poetry, not the verbal definitions in dictionaries.’”