Friday, March 30, 2012

Stephanie Anderson’s The Nightyard (Spin-out)

Frontispiece of Bowker’s Art of Angling, Containing Directions for Fly-Fishing, Trolling, Making Artificial Flies, &c. (1854)
(No. 1. Red Fly. 2. Blue Dun. 3. March Brown. 4. Cowdung Fly. 5. Stone Fly. 6. Granam, or Green Tail. 7. Spider Fly. 8. Black Gnat. 9. Black Caterpillar. 10. Little Iron Blue. 11. Yellow Sally. 12. Canon, or Down Hill Fly. 13. Shorn Fly, or Marlow Buzz. 14. Yellow May Fly, or Cadow. 15. Grey Drake. 16. Orl Fly. 17. Sky Blue. 18. Cadis Fly. 19. Fern Fly, 20. Red Spinner. 21. Blue Gnat. 22 & 23. Large Red and Black Ants. 24. Hazel Fly, or Welshman's Button. 25. Little Red and Black Ants. 26. Whirling Blue. 27. Little Pale Blue. 28. Willow Fly. 29. White Moth. 30. Red Palmer.)

Ezra Pound, putting the homegrown solitary art of tying flies up against usury (“Usury rusts the man and his chisel / It destroys the craftsman, destroying craft”), out of Canto LI:
                Blue dun; number 2 in most rivers
for dark days, when it is cold
A starling’s wing will give you the colour
or duck widgeon, if you take feather from under the wing
Let the body be of blue fox fur, or a water rat’s
or grey squirrel’s. Take this with a portion of mohair
and a cock’s hackle for legs.
12th of March to 2nd of April
Hen pheasant’s feather does for a fly,
green tail, the wings flat on the body
Dark fur from a hare’s ear for a body
a green shaded partridge feather
                grizzled yellow cock’s hackle
green wax; harl from a peacock’s tail
bright lower body; about the size of pin
the head should be. can be fished from seven a.m.
till eleven; at which time the brown marsh fly comes on.
As long as the brown continues, no fish will take Granham . . .
Out of Bowlker’s Art of Angling, Greatly Enlarged and Improved; Containing Directions for Fly-Fishing, Trolling, Bottom-Fishing, Making Artificial Flies, &c. (1826):
Blue Dun. 2.

      This Fly is found on most rivers, it appears in the beginning of March and continues till the end of April. Its wings stand upright on its back, and are made of a feather out of a starling’s wing, or the blue feathers that are to be found under the wing of a duck widgeon; the body is of the blue fur of a fox, or the blue part of a squirrel’s fur, mixed with a little yellow mohair, and a fine blue cock’s hackle wrapt over the body in imitation of legs; its tail is forked and of the same colour as the wings; the hook No. 9. This fly may be fished with from ten in the morning till three in the afternoon, but the principal time is from twelve till two. It is most plentiful, and the fish take them best, in dark, cold weather.
Numerous editions of the book were printed, with noticeable variations. In the 1854 edition, the lines read:
BLUE DUN.—No. 2.

      This fly is found on most rivers, and is in appearance one of the most delicate insects that frequent the water; and, what is rather extraordinary, it is more numerous, and the fish take it best, in dark cold weather, being but seldom seen when mild and warm. It appears early in March, and is a good fly throughout the year. The wings stand upright on the body, and are to be made of a feather from a starling’s wing, or a pale blue feather from under the wing of a duck widgeon; the body of the blue fur of a fox, or water rat, or squirrel, mixed with a small proportion of yellow or lemon-coloured mohair; and a fine blue cock’s hackle for legs; the tail is forked, and is to be formed with two fibres from the same feather as the wings are made of; the hook No. 9. It may be used from ten o’clock in the morning till three in the afternoon; but the best time of the day is from twelve till two, particularly in March and April.
Hence, Pound’s “water rat.” And (again, out of the 1854 edition):

      If the weather be warm, this fly makes its appearance in the beginning of April, and it continues on the water about a fortnight; it is a delicate fly, and but seldom seen on cold days. It derives the name of Green-Tail from a bunch of eggs, of a green colour, which it deposits on the water while floating on the surface. The wings lie flat on the body, and are made of a shaded feather from the wing of a partridge or hen pheasant; the body of the dark fur of a hare’s ear, and a yellowish grizzled cock’s hackle for legs; a small quantity of bright green wax (or green harl from the eye of a peacock’s tail), about the size of a pin's head, may be applied to the lower part of the body, after the fly is completed, for the tail, and it has a very natural appearance; the hook No. 9. This fly is to be fished with from seven o’clock in the morning till eleven, at which time the March Brown comes on, and so long as the Brown continues, the fish will not take the Granam; from five in the evening till dark it may again be used with success.
Selecting, arranging—to see what’s kept, what’s scrapped. Carroll Terrell, in A Companion to the Cantos of Ezra Pound (1980) identified Pound’s source and quoted much of the Art of Angling’s “Granam” material. He adds: “One of the amazing things revealed in The Art of Angling is the precision of nature in process. Trout will rise for a dressed fly only if it duplicates exactly a natural fly that can be expected not only that season of the year but also the right time of day. Any variation from nature and the fish will not take the bait.”

Here’s the thing. A somewhat random reading of the Pound lines against (in the sense of “adjacent to”) a chance reading of Stephanie Anderson’s poem “This Cleaving and This Burning”—out of The Nightyard (Noemi Press, 2011) pointed me to seeing hints of Pound in Anderson’s work, its curt emphatics, its refusal of excess, lack of noticeable slack, see (mid-“This Cleaving and This Burning”)—
The furnace for a coal-lit cellar.
                                                              Size them all:
                                                              anvil, brick, animal-breath;

heat aftermath.

Fire size: coal matter is plant matter
                                                                    plus heat and pressure—

slow splintering below tar-papered
house, an ochre hour
                            —over geologic time.

Pouring the basement you size the low.
Before, years cutting foliage to field,

                                                                    flag-tail of prey in snow,
                suspended house
                                                        tin cat
rope chain. Coal compaction.

Stake out the land in uniform widths
and size enough; the fossil record is strewn
                                                            or usually must have hard parts.

                                                        First furrows through the middle.
Running to deep, failure to scour,

                                                plow to stone,

too much wing bearing, excessive draft,
beam spring left, hitch too low—

alteration of hard parts is common.
Anderson’s note: “The title of ‘This Cleaving and This Burning’ is taken from Hart Crane’s ‘Legend.’ The following were used for source material: Small Farmers Journal, homophonic translations from the Sigur Rós album ( ) and A Golden Guide to Fossils.” (Out of Crane’s poem, and pertinent to the cumulus attained: “. . . drop by caustic drop, a perfect cry / Shall string some constant harmony. . .”) Is it simply the lingo of the ‘how to’ discourse, the sustenance of attending to the instress “flush and foredrawn” of fact, the handmade that’s common to Pound’s fly-tying and Anderson’s sizing and fossil-hunting lines? Requirements modify effects: inchoate finish adumbrated in ruse of onset, moth in pupa hid. Meaning, as Anderson puts it (“The Mule Spindles”): “You form, watch our tools may yet out-spin us.” Or, out of “Barnshack, or, Wooden Balloon: A Paring of Miss Dora’s Chronography”: “Other structors made run-off.” Structor Pound, for example. Regarding The Nightyard: a supplementary “take” required. (Needed, too, a ‘how to’ discourse of how to write a review . . .)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Paul Metcalf (Stray Notes)

Paul Metcalf, 1917–1999
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Somewhere in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) somebody declares: “To get back one’s youth, one has merely to repeat one’s follies.” That’s what I recall reading Paul Metcalf’s Genoa:

(Pasted to the inside of Melville’s desk, discovered after his death: “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.”

A line attributed to Friedrich Schiller, and seemingly everywhere in the mid-nineteenth century popular press: The Medical Times & Gazette (1856), The People’s Journal (1847), Howitt’s Journal of Literature and Popular Progress (1847), Hogg’s Weekly Instructor (1852), The New Monthly Magazine (1864) . . . A bromide snuck off and stuck away. Or the ineffably stark “truism” of a poet. Melville d. 1891.

Variants: “Atop a table piled high with papers was a portable writing desk. Taped inside the desk, which had no bottom, was a piece of paper with a motto printed on it . . .” Or: “Melville pasted the timeless maxim, ‘Keep true to the dreams of thy youth,’ to the underside of ‘the inclined plane’ of the small portable desk on which the author composed his last work . . .” Or: “Melville . . . pasted to a sidewall by his desk, out of sight to all eyes but his own, ‘a printed slip of paper that read simply, “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.”’” Or: “the motto—‘Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.’—glued to the inside of the writing box on which Billy Budd was composed . . .” Or: “Despite [Melville’s] attraction to a refined aesthetic hedonism, his bedroom was austere, even forbidding, and posted on a side wall by his desk, visible only to himself, was a copied line from Schiller, ‘Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.’” Or: “Glued on the inside of the writing box on which Billy Budd and the last poems were composed was found a tiny clipping—Melville’s own motto—‘Keep true to the dreams of thy youth’.” Or: “‘Mrs Metcalf told me she saw the truism pasted under the cover of his black desk: Keep true to, the dreams of, your youth’—Olson in notes toward the essay ‘Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself,’1958, among his papers.” One tires of the chase. Variousness, in its ampleur, seemingly “Equal . . . to the Real Itself”—inconstancy turning each cheek to the fire and rarely burning itself out. Melville, out of The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857): “Truth will not be comforted. Led by dear charity, lured by sweet hope, fond fancy essays this feat; but in vain; mere dreams and ideals, they explode in your hand, leaving naught but the scorching behind!” (Chasing down the particulars of the “writing box” results in no “plump sphericity” of fact—see Melville’s remark concerning Hawthorne: “Still there is something lacking—a good deal lacking—to the plump sphericity of the man.”) Metcalf (out of Genoa):
Melville, regarding Mardi, in a letter:

“. . . proceeding in my narrative of facts, I began to feel an incurable distaste for the same; & a longing to plume my pinions for a flight, & felt irked, cramped & fettered by plodding along with dull commonplaces,—So suddenly abandoning the thing altogether, I went to work heart & soul at a romance which is now in fair progress . . .”


(Melville, elsewhere: “. . . since all human affairs are subject to organic disorder, since they are created in and sustained by a sort of half-disciplined chaos, hence he who in great things seeks success must never wait for smooth water, which never was and never will be, but, with what straggling method he can, dash with all his derangements at his object . . .”

Thus the feverish rampancy and upshot of reading Metcalf’s Genoa: A Telling of Wonders (1965)—how it provokes (Latin prōvocāre to call forth, to rouse, to summon) a textual battery of voices. One cannot read anything without seeing its place in a new arrangement. (Recall Metcalf’s keen sense of shaping distinct “particles” at the beginning of the Review of Contemporary Fiction interview: “The poets . . . offered us an opportunity to ‘particularize’—i.e., to break a narrative into its particular parts, and rearrange them according to an original pattern. There is a significant connection between the images from the world of electromagnetics, images used in one case by Pound, and the other by Olson. Pound speaks of the poem as the ‘rose in the steel dust,’ and Olson describes the poem as a thing among things, that must ‘stand on its own feet as, a force, in, the fields of force which surround everyone of us . . .’ Both these images suggest particles in a state of chaos, drawn into shape through an act of imagination, but retaining their character as particles, distinct from one another . . .”) Metcalf sees such weighing (akin to Sidney’s “peizing each syllable of each word by just proportion”) and weighting of a “ballast” of particulars in Moby-Dick (“After a conventional novelistic opening, Melville quickly particularizes, interjecting (between narrative sequences) particles of cetology, the practice of whaling, etc.—‘the ballast of the book,’ as Van Wyck Brooks put it. Has anyone ever made a comparative study of Moby-Dick and Paterson?”) Or, note how Metcalf (Genoa) combines variance, chance, and acuity in one contributory particular deftly plucked out of Pierre:

Melville, as Pierre: “A varied scope of reading, little suspected by his friends, and randomly acquired by a random but lynx-eyed mind . . .; this poured one considerable contributory stream into that bottomless spring of original thought which the occasion and time had caused to burst out in himself.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Paul Metcalf (Stray Notes)

Paul Metcalf, 1917–1999
(Photograph by Nick Dean)

Among the initial pages of Paul Metcalf’s Will West (1956), a warning, rebuke, premonitory dare, and acceptance:
It is those of us who cannot untangle ourselves from the past that are really dangerous in the present because we are only partly here our eyes are blind because our appetites are turned inward or backward chewing on the cold remnants of our inheritance of our facts of our history to try to find who we are what we are where we came from what is the ground we stand on to whom does it belong and did it belong. We are dangerous because when we come out of the past we are rich with its energies and poorly experienced in the business of daily living and we hurl ourselves across the present with the blind fierceness of a martyr or a convert defending our damage to the defenseless with a language they cannot understand a language created from false concepts of time of history of past present and future. In the end we will bring to the world nothing useful and although we may find what we have been and even what we are nevertheless for all our search the heavy helpless stumbling of men born in quicksand we will never know what we have done.
Metcalf, in a squib titled “Coca-Cola: It’s the R-E-A-L Thing” in Lillabulero #12 calls the paragraph “a negative, a set of danger signals attached to a kind of involvement that is quite clearly (and implicitly, from the rest of the book) tempting the hell out of me. I am like a kid about to jab the H needle into his vein for the first time, remembering all the warnings.” Metcalf’s phrase, repeatedly, is involvement with history, “involve” turning down out of the Latin involvĕre to roll into, to wrap up, to surround, to entangle, and with some revelatory leanings in its usage—“Anone fro benethe, lyke as the grownde hadde be broken, ther brake vppe a flame of fier that inuoluyd hem . . .” Metcalf: “In a way, this whole process—my involvement with history, which is what all my books are about—is like a prism, with refractions at different angles—and the appearance varies with the angle and light.” And: “History and life for me are not altogether holding actions . . . They fluctuate, in intensity and rhythm, or give off widely different, almost mutually exclusive lights, prismatically. Perhaps, one of these days, I will begin to churn again. Or perhaps I will drift into an absolute calm. Either state, it seems to me, might have a claim to validity.”

Out of an undated Metcalf essay called, punningly, “Totem Paul: A Self-Review” in Where Do You Put the Horse?” (1986):
Studying a complex totem pole, one can see how the various figures, and the tales they represent, bear upon one another: the claws of the raven are on the back of the beaver, etc. I realized that I was dealing here with an unusual hybrid form, generally, works of art fall into one of two categories, those that may be taken in at once, like a painting or a sculpture, and those that require time for their reception, such as a symphony, a play, or a book. A totem pole combines both conditions: one can see it at a glance, or one can read it like a book, the chapters merging, top to bottom, or bottom to top. And to describe this mix, I have come up with the term, “The Narrative Hieroglyph.”

*       *       *

. . . I think all of my books, individually and collectively, may be called “narrative hieroglyphs.” True, unlike a totem pole, a book may not be taken in at a glance; it requires time to read. But a totem pole, as I have said, may be read like a book. And the effect of one of my books—which I have commissioned myself to carve, to record the “histories” of our “tribes”—the effect is one of the various elements or “figures,” in a line sequence, each perched upon the back of its predecessor. In the past I have used terms such as “mosaic” or “collage”; but the totem pole, with its tribal, historic sequence and organic juxtapositions, is a much more powerful analog.*
Metcalf’s furiously writing body—out of “The Creative Process” (1984) (“Choice of the daunting title for this essay is deliberate . . . and I am fully aware that this title will cause many a reader to skip on by or at least begin reading with an unconscious negative bias”)—poses its gritty exertion, velocity, and thralldom against the usual “seemingly endless freshet of mystical nonsense”: “few of us who write or paint or compose . . . know what the hell it is we’re doing. In general, if we’re any good at what we do, we’re moving too fast, too much in thrall to our obsession, our muse, our daemon, to be intelligently aware of process . . .” See, too, “Butting Heads with the Transcendentalists” (1977):
      Answer a question not with an answer, nor with a question, but with an unthinking, demanding physical activity.
      That too is a philosophy—mens sana in corpore sano—but I don’t view it as such: I view it as the Head blotted out, at least for a time, in the sweat of the Body (and that, too, is a false dichotomy, Head and Body: the two are one).
      The head ignites, produces its illuminations, and then reburies, not just questioning itself, but incarcerating, risking itself, totally.
      . . . I find myself thrown back, or throwing myself back, into pre-thought, into plain experience. Which is why I dismiss Emerson—and am suspicious of Thoreau (I don’t believe in transcending anything)—the Head will always rise, the world is full of Heads—what’s difficult is the Body: Whitman’s persistent lists, Melville’s cetological details . . . it’s difficult to hold onto that, to persist in that, when the Head wants to talk—as, God knows, it always does.
Head and Body, noun and verb. Out of the 1983 “The Scene” (“Being a gathering and a ripping apart, brimming with bile and bias, spleen and prejudice, and offering, at the very end, a glimmer of hope”):
I would suggest that Europe is the land of nouns. The nearest concession to a verb a true European will make is at best intransitive, grudging. As in Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on. I go on.” And Beckett, when asked why he wrote in French, replied, “Because French is the most beautiful language in which to say absolutely nothing.” And Meridel LeSueur, that grand octogenarian lady of the midwestern American Left—whose name but nothing else may be French—has recently said, “I’m doing away with the noun now. The noun is a capitalist invention.”
* Metcalf clearly sees his writing (particularly the “narrative hieroglyphs”), too, as being a form of salvage and reuse:
David Kadlec, in an unpublished essay, describes the theory of bricolage, as developed by the French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss: “Bricolage is distinguished from the work of the craftsman insofar as the materials used are those salvaged from the wreckage of previous constructions rather than materials designed specifically for the task at hand. Lévi-Strauss views mythical thought, which draws from an extensive but limited repertoire, as a kind of intellectual bricolage. New myths can be wrought exclusively from the fragments of old ones.”
      Fragments of old myths, old voices, are caught up as they float to the surface. Original meanings may be lost or incomprehensible or conceived only in the abstract. But carefully and patiently put together in new relationships and in a current context, they are charged with new force.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Paul Metcalf (Stray Notes)

Paul Metcalf, 1917–1999
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Reading, in the chilly grub-colored light of pre-dawn: “If you attentively regard almost any quadruped’s spine, you will be struck with the resemblance of its vertebrae to a strung necklace of dwarfed skulls, all bearing rudimental resemblance to the skull proper. It is a German conceit, that the vertebrae are absolutely undeveloped skulls.” Metcalf quoting Melville in Genoa. Muscle memory personified, motor extensions. Maybe it’s only because I read just hours earlier (under the cold-rinsed blue light of a pre-dusk stuck with lunar-planetary alignments) Metcalf’s “Willie’s Throw”—“He caught the ball, planted his left foot and pivoted away from the plate . . . / What I did, though, was catch the ball and kind of let its force in my glove help spin me completely around.. . . so that he threw like a discus thrower . . .”—that I recall directly Willie Hays’s assessment by one Dr. Uhley: “Willie, all you’ve got for a back is one continuous muscle.” Earlier in Genoa: Melville’s “I rejoice in my spine . . .” A line that continues: “as in the firm audacious staff of that flag which I fling half out to the world.” (Melville’s physical sense of writing: “It is impossible to talk or to write without apparently throwing oneself helplessly open . . .”)

Metcalf’s lovely nod to Edward Dahlberg:

In Kansas, when a man got ahead, made some money, he sent his son East to Harvard (the little boys in Dahlberg’s orphan asylum sang “We’ll fight for the name of Harvard”)
                                                                              and there it is, the schizoid split, so American, so middlewestern: the mean, grimy things we do to make money—and the “culture,” the unreal world of knowledge, the reward of it all
                                                             in no writer, in the past, has the split been more evident and perplexing than in Dahlberg: thrusts into his sordid Kansas background, alternating with heaped-up Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew allusion—“several thousand volumes are the making of a marvelous mask”
                                                            But in Because I Was Flesh, the two mountains grind, finally, together, and the disturbance is at least seismic—there is new wit, there is personal honesty, the scalpel has been honed, sharp as one of Lizzie’s razors—Mother and Son are relentless, slicing, driving to the end of the book
                                                                                        all of Dahlberg’s earlier work appears now to have been the manufacturer and trial run of materials: he has put them together, at last, in this work
      and we are shaken

The quoted line out of Dahlberg’s autobiography Because I Was Flesh (1963)—“several thousand volumes are the making of a marvelous mask”—applying to Metcalf himself. The mask tossed down, subsumed by purely bookish materiel. That stretch to avoid the novel’s wiles. In the Review of Contemporary Fiction interview, Metcalf calls it “a notion, shared perhaps with Olson more than anyone else, a notion that we both picked up from Pound and Williams, that is very much a part of Melville (again look at the cetology in Moby-Dick)—a notion that the old masks and artifices of conventional fiction, and of ‘baring-of-the-soul’ poetry, were worn out, or seemed no longer useful tools for us, here, now—and that the simple facts of our situation, of our history, were the richest possible lode, begging to be mined.” To Russell Banks (in Lillabulero) Metcalf admits: “There’s been a constant, slow drive to, one, write a novel, and then, two, cure myself of that. To shed the novel, so to speak, in my writing.”

To put one thing against another. Metcalf (Lillabulero interview) regarding “looking for the personal in the handling of the material, the way the material itself is handled”:
Isn’t this all modern painting? I mean, I’ve learned a lot from the modern painters. I remember a show I saw years ago in Asheville, North Carolina, by Josef Albers. And the things that he was doing, simply by putting this color next to that color, he was a man who did that as well as anybody, as you well know. In looking at those pictures, I got a sense of tremendous overpowering emotion that went on, that made him put that special relation of colors and designs together. And if this comes through in my writing, that’s what I’m aiming for, for the reader to get the thrill that comes to me from the juxtaposition of these materials . . . And this has been carried now, beyond Albers . . . I’m thinking particularly of Robert Rauschenberg, where the election, the choosing of materials for juxtaposition, is not just colors but solid images . . . He not only chooses, but there is a subtle pattern to his choices, that gives a structure to his work, to the body of it, as a whole. So you have a double excitement: first, the individual painting, and then its place in relation to the rest of his work.
(See William Corbett’s piece on Metcalf that begins with Nennius’s “I have made a heap of all that I could find” and ends with Arthur Dove: “There is an Arthur Dove collage in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts that puts me in mind of Metcalf. Mussel shells are nailed in a row below a hill of sand and pebbles, and on the hill a touring car clipped from a magazine advertisement carries the family on what must be a Sunday drive. This scene is seen through tree branches set in rows.” Metcalf reviewed Michel Butor’s fragmentary, factual, quote-filled—signs, slogans, newspapers, catalog detritus along with Jefferson, Franklin, William Penn, Louis Sullivan, &c.—1963 Mobile, A Study for a Representation of the United States for Corbett’s magazine Fire Exit.)

Metcalf (Lillabulero) on Melville scholars and meeting Olson:
My mother was Melville’s literary executrix . . . She had a lot of valuable material, plus her own childhood memories of Melville . . . She was 10 years old when he died. How valuable that is, knowing the great man up to your 10th year, I don’t know. She got a great pleasure out of it, and our home was sort of a haven for Melville scholars during the time that Melville was being discovered, beginning in 1921. I was four years old then, I don’t remember that, of course, but later on, particularly in the 30’s when we were living in Cambridge, all of this went on, and most of these people were as far as I was concerned, a bunch of creeps. At that time I was an adolescent boy and had no interest in writing, and not much interest in my parents and their interests, and I’d come in the house and these academic characters would be floating around talking a lot of language that I didn’t understand and wasn’t interested in. The first of those who came along and did sort of, you know, make me open my ears a little, was Olson. I was about 14, I think, when he showed up on the scene, that would have made him maybe twenty or something like that, maybe a little older, we were something like six or eight years apart. He and I kept up a sort of on-and-off relationship for many, many years after that. When I grew up and got married, I used to see him in New York. He was living in New York then. I was already writing by then, but we were on completely different tacks. We didn’t have any communication, really, with each other. Finally, he got out his book, Call Me Ishmael, and I was very excited by that, even though I still wasn’t interested in Melville . . .
And, seeing Olson later (Maximus and Will Westin parallel):
He’d come back from the Yucatan, and Creeley had brought out the Mayan Letters, and he was sort of presiding on the outskirts of the birth of Maximus. I was around and close to him and going to meetings and whatnot at the time that was all coming off. I was very excited about what he was doing and more than a little bit jealous, and about that time I wrote Will West. My writing, incidentally, started a little earlier, with Conrad Aiken. I spent a summer studying with him, in my early twenties. But that wasn’t very productive. I wrote a few soft, Aikenesque lyrics, but nothing I care to remember. Although he turned me on to Faulkner, which was important to me at that time, my whole thrust turned out to be in a very different direction . . . Whether I was influenced by Maximus in writing Will West . . . I do remember this, yes, it must have been, because I remember a conversation I had with Olson, and he was reading from Maximus and I was working on Will West. You know how proprietary Olson was about his material. If he wrote about tansy, nobody else could write about tansy. They were his flowers, you know. Everything was like that. He was possessive and omnivorous. So I went up to Olson, almost like I was a humble little student, asking his permission, asking if I could write about De Soto. He said, sure, it was off his kick. I thought, Oh boy! I don’t have to fight him about De Soto.
Thomas Meyer, in a Lillabulero piece called “A Holler for a Tricky Yankee,” puts Metcalf squarely with the odd American isolato, freak and genius:
Cranky. As American as Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, as Dr. Young’s Improved rectal dilators (sold only in sets of four). Rattle-trap books tinkered about with. Engines. Devices. Cures for the common hackles. Not so much copyrighted as patented. Plenty of Moxie. Noah Webster not Oxford Scholars.

& here we need not fear what scares the pants off Henry James. Here there isn’t any etiquette beyond silence, beyond the tenderness of ice or the root twisting its design . . .

Arthur Dove, “Long Island,” 1925

Monday, March 26, 2012

Paul Metcalf’s Will West

Paul Metcalf, 1917–1999
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

For ten days we would eat moderately abstain from women inure ourselves to hardship by cold plunges in the stream the night before the game we would fast and watch all night submit to scarification our skins scratched by seven splinters of turkey bone set in a frame of quill the ball ground was five hundred yards long the ball of scraped deer skin moistened stuffed with deers hair sewed with deer sinews goals marked with branches were set up at either end the object being to drive the ball through the opponent’s goal the ball must be picked up by the racket and not by the hand but anything else was allowed the umpires were not called umpires but drivers. There were twelve goals to a game and if the twelve were not achieved by sunset we would fast watch another night and play the next day or as many days as might be necessary fasting and watching the intervening nights . . . .
Paul Metcalf, out of Will West (1956), the story of an Indian pitcher who flees west after rather placidly killing a girl (I think of Camus’s 1942 L’Étranger and Meursault’s peremptory, sudden and rather inexplicable gunning down of the Arab on the beach near Algiers . . .) Metcalf, at the point where Will West is about to strangle the girl: “This is the decision the void the place where time stops the choice before an act enters the deadmarch. . . .” That “deadmarch” pointing undeniably at the repeated forced marches of Cherokees west to “Indian Territory” under the terms of the 1830 Indian Removal Act. Will West’s murder is something of a misdirected attempt at reclamation and recovery—of “what is / in the conch, / the gull and tern, / the long coastal sky”—Metcalf dubs the moment significant with ceremonious verse:
Come up from sand and briers,
Down from wing of curlew,

Out of mullet,
            clam shell, and
            frond of palmetto.

My parts fly back to my limbs.
Implacable Osiris unmistakably in those “limbs.” Metcalf’s method—interlarding “story” with blocks of historical material like the that of the “Indian ball game”—is a kind of “gathering of the limbs” itself . . . Guy Davenport, astutely, circa 1996, in the “Introduction” to the initial volume of Metcalf’s Collected Works:
Metcalf’s collaged textures are ultimately derived from Pound's ideogrammatic method in The Cantos, where images in a field of force make a complex sign, just as the radicals in a Chinese character add up in a kind of poetic arithmetic to a meaning. Each of Metcalf’s books is an ideogram. Whereas Pound’s . . . ideograms are, at least in the early cantos, resolvable . . . Metcalf’s remain a vibrant suspension.
Davenport’s seeing of Metcalf’s assembling of various “affinities” that belong together in a way that “eludes linear reason”—apt for Davenport’s work too. Congenial bookishness. So: Metcalf’s westerly-pushing Ferdinand De Soto hits a river:
De Soto and the Spaniards came to a great river the largest they had seen they named it Rio Grande and some suggested it might even be larger than the Danube camp was set up and the men cut timber to make pirogues for a crossing Indians appeared in canopied barges and canoes parting the waters of the Great River like an armada of galleys the warriors painted and feathered in ochre and vermilion discharged arrows and retreated thirty days the Spaniards labored the pirogues were towed upstream that the landing would be opposite camp the crossing was made men and horses ferried across the Great River the pirogues were destroyed but the nails saved for future use . . .
Or the Cherokee flatboat’d out of the Smokies:
The United States Government provided flatboats the John Cox the Sliger Blue Buck Rainbow Squeezer and Moll Thompson on the Hiwassee River for those Indians who could be cajoled bribed corrupted into leaving their homes in the Old Smokies and going West four hundred and fifty came out of their cabins lived in barracks by the river while they waited bought dainties whiskey and trinkets sold their western land claims to speculators before departure the measles broke out the flatboats floated down the Hiwassee a young lieutenant from West Point in command dow the Tennessee through the Suck the Boiling-Pot the Skillet the Frying Pan measles raged through young and old but mostly young the government provided salt pork and white bread and no medicine at every stop the Indians went ashore to cut wood for coffins . . .
Or Ulysses S. Grant at the “crookedest big river” at Vicksburg:
The river flows through soft alluvial mud intersected for twenty miles on either side by a web a maze of interlocking and obstructed bayous the banks overgrown with a wild jungle tangle the intervening spaces sunken in swamps it is the crookedest big river in the world also the orneriest changing or refusing to change its course at will this was the problem that face Grant the river that must be opened to New Orleans to cut off Confederate supplies isolate the Rebels from their granary in the West open now to St. Louis to Cairo to Memphis but at Vicksburg the bluff hills rise two hundred feet the highest and strongest point on the river terraced and fortified with entrenched batteries so that no ships could pass. Vicksburg the Hill City protected south and west by the river north by the fortifications at Hayne’s Bluff could only be attacked in the rear in the tail that is from the east Grant approached from the north moving slowly to keep open his supplies food forage and ammunition via railroad and river but the rail lines were broken by raids stores destroyed and Grant retreated he approached from the west tried to dig a canal in the peninsula opposite Vicksburg so the fleet could by-pass the batteries but the river refused to stay out of the work finally flooded the operation the soldiers had to withdraw or be drowned Grant tried to open a passage through the bayous but the Rebels felled trees across them in all his efforts he had failed with his northern soldiers suffering the terrors not only of the terrain but of the climate the pestilential fevers the pestilential fevers the drinking water on which the Confederates thrived . . .
Jonathan Williams, who writes about Metcalf in the 1973 Metcalf issue of the William Matthews and Russell Banks-edited Lillabulero (is that where I first gleaned an initial sense of Metcalf? how easy in that período de entreguerras, that period of détente prior to the Language boys’ revival of New American Poetry “camp”-markings—largely a marketing ploy—how easy to find writers of all sorts intercalated, Jackson Mac Low in Sumac next to Charles Simic, or Paul Blackburn next to Galway Kinnell . . .) in a piece called “The Roastin’ Ears Are In and Vida Pitches Tonight!”: “His approach to reading and writing is precisely the same as doing the daily chores; i.e., nothing to jabber about: do it.”

Put up gainst the historical affidavits: Metcalf’s impeccable ear for American speech, and (particularly, in Will West) the kind of boasting confessio one used to parry (or encourage) with grunts whilst hitchhiking. A trucker named Ferd showing off a snapshot of a girl—“Thirteen when that was took. She’s fifteen now. . . . Jailbait”—tucked up over the windshield of the cab:
      “You know, there ain’t nothing about that gal but what you see right there.” He spoke tensely. “She’s the orneriest brat this side of the river. Lives alone with her aunt, down the road from us. The old woman works all day to support her and then comes home, and cooks dinner, cleans the house, does the washing, the ironing, and the dishes and then like as not sets down and makes a dress for her.That one just sets around after school and suns herself. . . . And you know there ain’t nothing you can tell her. She tells my wife jokes and the wife comes home and tells me and you’d think she just come out of the stable. What I mean, she knows it all. If my little woman knew I even had that picture up here she’d cut my throat.”
      He turned to the window and spat out the cigarette butt.
      “Man, there ain’t nothing to recommend her. Nothing but what she’s got under that sweater.”
Metcalf, whose great-grandfather’s Herman Melville, and whose subsequent novel Genoa (1965) sweeps together Melville and Columbus, in an interview with John O’Brien:
I put off reading Melville until my late twenties—after I had already written Will West. When I did read him, seriously and systematically, it was of course a revelation, but a revelation of something that was already there. This experience may have something to do with my notion that influences may be “in the air,” so to speak, and it is possible for a writer to be influenced by books he has never read. Any writer, in a given place and time, swims in inherited currents common to other writers of the same place and time, whether he is aware of this or not.
And: “Will West was the first one where I started to do funny things—introduce documentary material, ethnological material, archeological material, all juxtaposed in the flow of what was still essentially a conventional novel.” And Jonathan Williams, eulogist, reporting how he’d gone to some university “in darkest Cullowhee” to attend a lecture by Peter Schjeldahl (“I liked his blue-darter mentality. Rather like my own: able to hold onto a thought for about 10 seconds and then race on . . .”) just after learning of Metcalf’s death: “I told him Paul Metcalf had just died and asked him if he had known him or read him. He said he didn’t recognize the name. Which reminded me yet again how men of the city distrust loners and ignore those in the tall grass. In town artists organize into gangs and urban wolf packs in order to compete for the season’s fleeting attentions and, maybe, even for a few bucks . . .”

Friday, March 23, 2012

Jonathan Williams’s Blues & Roots / Rue & Bluets

Jonathan Williams, c. 1955

Gleanings of gleanings, mostly Jonathan Williams. (Glean < Old French glener, glainer (French glaner) to glean = Provençal glenar, grenar, late Latin (6th cent.) glenare, of unknown origin. “To gather ears of corn left by the reapers.” Chaucer (The Legend of Good Women, c. 1385): “And I come after, glening here and there, / And am full glad if I may finde an ere, / Of any goodly word that ye han left . . .”) In Williams’s Olson piece “Am—O” he writes, of gleanings at Black Mountain College: “I took another five years to achieve the Personal Voice, something somehow assembled into a bizarre olla podrida, containing hunks of Cabeza de Vaca, Bartram, Thoreau, Whitman, Courbet, de Kooning, Kline, Catullus, Delius, Fauré, Ives, Jelly Roll Morton, Lou Harrison, T. Jefferson. That’s Democracy In Action for you.” (For the by now dry-heaving anti-quietists amongst “us”: there’s, too, Williams’s quoting of Olson’s counsel—“I steer you right to urge you back to yr own inherited, & possessed, quietness”: “FIND OUT YOUR OWN CONSERVATISM. Don’t at all be uncomfortable in quietness. For it is now a most telling virtue (after all radicalism, and bohemianism—and false conservatism—have shown themselves to offer nobody anything . . .”) Williams gleans un peu partout—odd felicities of speech, the names of things, rakish signages, animal noises, folk bluff and banter, etymological gusto, &c. A kind of conservatism of delight. Not coy, not pedantic, not condescending. See (out of the 1985 edition of Blues & Roots / Rue & Bluets):
Standing by His Trailer-Studio
In Compton, Kentucky,
Edgar Tolson
Whittles a Few Syllables

that piece
thats what some folks call a spinach
or some damn thing

i got it
offn a match box

it needs wings
and a lions tail

some damn woman down in Lexington
wants it
Or (bookishly, and with punning title, its source being British explorer John Lawson’s 1709 A New Voyage to Carolina):
A Votre Santé
At the Headwaters of the Santee

“which Water we drank of, it
coloring the excrements of Travelers
by its Chalybid Quality,
as black as a Coal”

(John Lawson)
Williams’s terrific restraint in selecting is evident if one reads the whole paragraph whence it’s gleaned:
Viewing the Land here, we found an extraordinary rich, black Mould, and some of a Copper-colour, both Sorts very good; the Land in some Places is much burthen’d with Iron, Stone, here being great Store of it, seemingly very good: The eviling Springs, which are many in these Parts, issuing out of the Rocks, which Water we drank of, it colouring the Excrements of Travellers (by its chalybid Quality) as black as a Coal. When we were all asleep, in the Beginning of the Night, we were awaken’d with the dismall’st and most hideous Noise that ever pierc’d my Ears: This sudden Surprizal incapacitated us of guessing what this threatning Noise might proceed from; but our Indian Pilot (who knew these Parts very well) acquainted us, that it was customary to hear such Musick along that Swamp-side, there being endless Numbers of Panthers, Tygers, Wolves, and other Beasts of Prey, which take this Swamp for their Abode in the Day, coming in whole Droves to hunt the Deer in the Night, making this frightful Ditty ’till Day appears, then all is still as in other Places.
Turns out another piece in Blues & Roots / Rue & Bluets, the slightly lubricious one line “Ye Rattle-Snake”—“of the thickness / of the Small / of a lusty Man’s Leg . . . . . . . . . .”—it, too, is out of Lawson’s “exact description and natural history of that country”: “Some of them grow to a very great Bigness, as six Foot in Length, their Middle being the Thickness of the Small of a lusty Man’s Leg.”

See, too, Williams’s sheer delight in names (and deft sound arrangement) in something like “La Source”:
the Conasauga and the
make the


the Oostanaula and the
make the


Coosa River Tributary Map

The poem’s shape and sound subtly mimicking the several tributaries raveling into arrival at a single long round o solitary stream . . . Similarly, the dexterously clumped vowelling of “The Flower-Hunter in the Fields” makes its own argument beyond naming’s vagaries, beyond—here—mere “earthly” concerns (“Philadelphia blue laws!”), pointing out into some heavenly othering October, in a pure brief moment of ascendency beyond such categorickals as ‘Innocence’:
a flame azalea, mayapple, maple, thornapple

a white cloud in the eye
of a white horse

a field of bluets moving
below the black suit
of William Bartram

bluets, or ‘Quaker Ladies,’ or some say

bluets and the blue of gentians and
Philadelphia blue laws!

high hills,

stone cold

as October
One of my gleanings (out of the odd little exhibition catalogue Uncle Gus Flaubert Rates The Jargon Society in One Hundred One Laconic Présalé Sage Sentences (1989)—Williams’s brief assessment—“le mot juste, plus a bit of lucky mojo”—of each Jargon Society doing) is of Robert Duncan, prefacing Jonathan Williams’s own 1962 Elegies and Celebrations: “The assertion by which the dilettante true to his delecto moves into the passion of beauty is the strength that moves us.” Dilettante a word that’s suffered the way the word amateur’s suffered—Duncan here returning it to its origin in delight. Another gleaning: how the blues vocalist and harpist Junior Wells liked to call a harmonica a “Mississippi saxophone”—I suspect Williams might’ve delighted in that. (Is the capacity for delight directly proportional to that of despisal, of scorn? Williams, in a letter, quoted by Herbert Leibowitz: “If you despise a place long enough—this unruly continent, for instance—your own nature becomes despicable.” An end he avoided . . .)

Junior Wells’s “Vietcong Blues,” c. 1966
(Buddy Guy, guitar / Jack Myers, bass / Fred Below, drums)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

“I think that knowing to look at all and knowing what to look for is rather a lot . . .”

Jonathan Williams, c. 1975
(Photograph by Guy Mendes)

Out of Jonathan Williams’s 1971 The Loco Logodaedalist in Situ: Selected Poems 1968-70, the lengthy note preceding Williams’s “Excavations from the Case-Histories of Havelock Ellis, with a Final Funerary Ode for Charles Olson”—somewhat truncated:
Charles Olson made a vigorous effort long ago to teach me two things. One, that poetry is a process, not a memoir. Two, that there are many other uses for words than to bring the private soul to the public wailing wall. Philistines and lowbrow magazines always object to this—they want the word to bleed, they want the poet’s pants down, they want a mess on the floor to keep as a sacred relic. One knows ladies, librarians, and Hierophants of the Ego-Trip who still have pieces of the piano bench destroyed by Thomas Wolfe; the carpet be-vomited by Dylan Thomas; the glass dropped by Ferlinghetti [. . .] ; the famous vasoline jar of A. Ginsberg; [. . .] the last feces of Walt Whitman preserved in a case in the Camden Museum [. . .]

Guy Davenport credits me with following a tradition out of Whitman (who, he says, made a note to himself to invent “a perfectly transparent plate-glass style, artless, with no ornaments”*), Pound, Dr. Williams, Zukofsky, and Olson: a poetry neither meditative nor hortatory but projective. “It insisted that the world is interesting enough in itself to be reflected in a poem without rhetorical cosmetics, an arbitrary tune for melodramatic coloring, or stage directions from the literary kit and caboodle.” [. . .]

[. . .] Davenport’s revelation of what could be done by leaving the Songs of Archilochos in their fragments was the real tip-off. The body of a poem (like the body of a statue of Pan) reduced all the way down to



suffices more than adequately; i.e., sublimely. To jump from that reduction to Anton Webern is not capricious. His manipulation of a few tones in perpetual variation could produce what Schoenberg said were “whole novels in a single sigh.” (If it’s not Schoenberg, then it’s Thomas Mann.) There are instances before which one wants to fall silent. At such points, the whole area of ‘The Found’ comes into play.

I am also speaking as a follower of the Bishop Euhemerus**, in whom Charles Olson believed. By such extension I would affirm that ‘poems’ are but the deified prosaic speech of plain men and women; that ‘art’ is in ‘raising the common to grace.’ [. . .]

Adrian Berg, the London painter, got to discussing Havelock Ellis with me one evening, and expressing his respect for Ellis’s pioneer work in acquiring sexual information in the form of case histories. He later lent me a copy of “Sexual Inversion” from Studies in the Psychology of Sex. This third edition (1926) up-dated findings first published as early as 1901. I, too, was impressed with the frank, but courtly narratives from a time usually garbed in the trappings of the Forsyte family or the circumambience of the James brothers. Not even Lawrence’s people are often so unbuttoned and able to tell us what is eating them—inside and out.

My first thought was to fabricate a series of texts dealing with the present but using the Ellis style. The effort soon flagged, albeit more edifying than the language used in such scientific marvels of the New San Diego Pornography as “Beach-Boy Group-Grope.” At this juncture I received a manuscript from the young Scots poet, Thomas A. Clark, called Whatever You Do Guard (Poems After Samuel Palmer), made from prose texts by a method that suddenly gave me a way of working the Ellis material. Questioning the poet, he said: “Years working in a short space via haiku, epigram, W.C. Williams, Creeley, Concrete, etc., the trouble was, how to distance it from one’s own mind. The language became more and more self-referent and ‘obscure’ in the worst sense. So I’ve been making poems using texts which were ‘outside my own head,’ and treating them in different ways: permutational, fragmentary, etc. . . . I set about experiments like cutting columns in half, reading quickly across columns, or placing frames over pieces of prose. I think that knowing to look at all and knowing what to look for is rather a lot . . . Dom Silvester Houédard and Edwin Morgan also use cutouts, but what is interesting is that we all use it in the same way and get such different results.”*** (The use of collage by the early Cubists immediately comes to mind.)

I had, myself, discovered that a rectangular cutout laid over a section of prose text was a way to focus the response. The cutout used for Excavations was about an inch and a half wide and two inches deep. It was positioned, variously rotated, etc., over various sections until material began to re-shape itself. The margins and the spaces become those left when the dross is thrown out. What I was looking for were the fire-points, the garnet crystals free of their matrix.

Having thus worked, mined, or excavated the Ellis, I received a copy of Tom Phillips’s A Humument (Notes on a Work in Progress), published in the February 1970 issue of the London Magazine. It is a veritable, utterly valuable manifesto on this way of working found material. "A Humument is an attempt to make a Gesamtkunstwerk in small format: it includes poems, stories, music-scores, aphoristic notes on aesthetics and other philosophical topics, autobiography, pages dedicated to individuals, pop songs, language games, parodies and jokes, as well as the longer sequences which form the main substance of the book . . . In some sense a Humument, because it is less than what it started with, is a paradoxical embodiment of Mallarmé’s idea that everything in the world exists to be put into a book. All I know is that there is little that I wanted to say that I have not been able to wrest from those pages.” That last sentence is the point. The poet’s Muse, in the present instance, has not been stifled by the drab, matter-of-fact overlay of Ellis’s prose. All that you could want is there—if you dig at it with the perfected attention used to make any made poem. The ‘method’ is a tool like any number of others [. . .]

[. . .] Finally, we might note the words of the following, all having to do with ‘findings’: (1) “Use what’s lyin’ around the house.”—Mae West; (2) “I do not write; I am written.”—Rimbaud; (3) “I found the poems in the field / and only write them down.”—John Clare; (4) “Literature is highborn stealth.”—Robert Burton; (5) “Books are my trees.”—R. B. Kitaj; (6) “My beloved, they are not mine—no—they are not mine.”—Blake, on his deathbed speaking of the songs he heard in his head.
A few of Williams’s Ellis-excavated histories:

    it is a dark crimson

it affords me relief.


                        the sight of the naked

                            increased by
a young Turk smoking
                                    below the waist

And (Archilochian):


Is it Jonathan Williams, then, who provides Ronald Johnson with a working model for Johnson’s 1977 Radi os erasures? Williams’s note (and practice) of “excavating” is remarkable for its advanced percipience of post-cut-up techniques, doings seemingly “in the air” at that moment in the late ’sixties. No sense of a precise composition date for Williams’s “Excavations”: is it possible he’d read these lines out of Phillips’s London Magazine piece? “Each page is worked on to extract material, is mined for its undertext of fact and rhapsody, or, as often, more brutally excavated for matter quite alien to the original novel.” Phillips and Williams did work together to make a book—text by Williams, art by Phillips—called Imaginary Postcards (printed—and semi-suppressed—by Trigram in 1975—one bookseller reports a laid-in printed statement announcing: “As a result of a disagreement between the publishers and one of the authors over the design of the book, the publishers have decided not to publish it. Before this decision was reached 120 copies were bound, which are being distributed to friends of Trigram Press.”) At what point did Williams’s and Phillips meet and the slurry of exchange commence?
* Whitman, “in black pencil on three scraps of white laid paper with blue rules”:
Rules for Composition
      A perfectly transparent plate-glassy style, artless, with no ornaments, or attempts at ornaments, for their own sake,—they only looking well when like the beauties of the person or character, by nature and intuition, and never lugged in to show off, which nullifies the best of them, no matter when and where.
      Take no illustrations whatever from the ancients or classics, nor from the mythology, nor Egypt, Greece, or Rome—nor from the royal and aristocratic institutions and forms of Europe.— Make no mention or allusion to them whatever, except as they relate to the New, present things—to our country—to American character or interests.— Of specific mention of them, even for these purposes, as little as possible.—
      Too much attempt at ornament is the clur upon nearly all literary styles.
      Clearness, simplicity, no twistified or foggy sentences, at all—the most translucid clearness without variation.—
      Common idioms and phrases—Yankeeisms and vulgarisms—cant expressions, when very pat only.—
(Deleted paragraph at end: “Mention not God at all.”)

** The Sicilian Euhêmerus, (c. 316 B.C.) authored a sort of imaginary travel novel called Hiera Anagraphê (Ἱερὰ Ἀναγραϕή, Sacred Scripture) wherein he maintained that the deities of Greek mythology were simply deified common men and women, human participants in local historical incidents translated into myth.

*** Curious where Clark’s remarks originate. Repeated in Clark’s 1971 Jargon Society book Some Particulars. Repeated (announced baldly, “Thomas A. Clark speaking:”) with context and pointers stripped out (both the phrase “via haiku, epigram, W.C. Williams, Creeley, Concrete, etc.” and the final sentence referring to “Dom Silvester Houédard and Edwin Morgan” oddly lacking) by Ray DiPalma in “Some Notes on Thomas A. Clark” in the fifth number of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978).

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lorine Niedecker / Jonathan Williams

Lorine Niedecker, “Northwest Depot (Milwaukee),” c. 1960
(Dwight Foster Public Library)

A seemingly ephemeral piece* by Jonathan Williams (out of The Full Note: Lorine Niedecker):
Six Misericords for LN in Misericordless Wisconsin

Misericord (1)
a dignified figure
seated at a desk
with a large bird
beside her
and the head
of either a snake
or a small dog
emerging from the sleeve
of her loose robe

Misericord (2)
in a barrow

Misericord (3)
hammering a wedge
to split
a hedge-stake

Misericord (4)
his right hand
is broadcasting seed

a horse
walks behind

Misericord (5)
no doubt
was a hawk

on his wrist

Misericord (6)
two men
hold partly filled sacks
and a long corn bin
as they kneel behind
a pile of grain
A lovely word misericord, meaning pity, and dagger (the one used for final dispatch, the coup de grâce—Caxton says, “Mysericorde or knyf with a crosse is gyuen to a knyght to thende that yf his other armures faylle hym that he haue recours to the myserycorde or daggar”), and room (in a monastery, wherein reprieve of the rule is permitted), and mercy seat (or its carvings). “A wooden shelf on the underside of a hinged seat in a choir stall providing, when turned up, some degree of comfort to a person standing in the stall during periods of prayer.” Also: “detailed, often bawdy, carvings of scenes of daily life medieval misericords were frequently furnished with.” (Williams’s sense.) That unending desire to furnish any blank, to stock what’s unstocked. In a letter dated 4 March 1964 to Williams (who records it in a daybook), Niedecker writes:
Forgive the pictures. They are a housewife’s, a retired poet’s, a mere dabbling in school kids’ paints. A sudden fierce desire to paint everything I love—if it has simple lines and much color. But it’s likely, isn’t it, that every poet feels a great desire to paint, no matter how primitively. You can write about a thing with great excitement akin to ecstasy, but paint, that takes love. Then too, it appeases my desire to possess things. But this, the desire to possess, has been leaving me anyhow. Marriage, however, brings with it the house, the kitchen stove, the living room furnishings, the land, a flower, the evergreen tree which Cid Corman suggests we should have to live on a little beyond us.
(No doubt that “evergreen tree” the source of Williams’s “tall friend / the pine tree . . . / still there // to see” in “Still Water . . .”) Williams quotes, too, Kenneth Cox (out of a piece called “Three Who Have Died” in the magazine Earth Ship 3)**:
Lorine Niedecker died on 31 December 1970. She had lived her life by river and lakeside in Wisconsin, far from literary cenacles, gossip and gadgetry (no, I don’t have a tape-recorder and don’t know of anyone within a couple of hundred miles who does), attentive to weather, family, meals, chores, boats, water, and the people about her (the folks from whom all poetry flows / and dreadfully much else). She got up early to read, maintained an extensive correspondence and was interested to the end in examples of extreme technique . . . Her poems, physical in feel to a point that calls for terms applied to food: tender, tart, tough, use word and intonation with such subtlety and concentration they unfold details of existence, after who can tell what discouragement, to a deep stillness. For me poetry is a matter of planting it in deep, a filled silence, each person reading it a silence to be filled.
(Oddly enough, in Williams’s daybook, that entry precedes one quoting a letter by the Vicar of Beverley regarding misericords: “There is no modern book on the misericords of the Minster. The only complete work is called The Misereres of Beverley Minster, by T. T. Wildridge, 1879. This is out of print, of course, but can be seen in the Reference Department of Beverley Borough Library: so it looks as though you will have to make a pilgrimage here to see it. The misericords may be lifted for inspection. The vergers tremble because careless visitors (of whom there are many) then promptly drop them heavily, which does not improve the hinges.”)
* Not collected in Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems (2005). Therein, an elegy:
Still Water for Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970)

she seined words
as others stars
or carp

laconic as
a pebble
in the Rock River

along the bank
where the peony flowers

her tall friend
the pine tree is
still there

to see
** Earth Ship apparently originated in Southampton, England, lasted for thirteen numbers (1970-72), and continued (1973-76) under the name The Ear in a Wheatfield. A note in the catalogue record for The Ear in a Wheatfield reads: “Each issue has a different cover title. / Editor: Kris Hemensley.” One of the other “three . . . who died” is Stevie Smith. Cox: “Our own Stevie Smith, an English eccentric, ridiculous and terrifying, aunt and prophetess, her voice between giggle and scream cracking the provincial vicarage, declaring again and again: There is no formula for poetry, no school, no authority, nothing but the spirit that moves and the wit and the nerve to give it utterance.” (Quoted in Sanford Sternlicht’s 1991 In Search of Stevie Smith.) One’d love to see the whole of Cox’s piece (damn the difficulty of procuring serials through interlibrary loan).

Lorine Niedecker’s note to Gail Roub: “if I were to paint again, it wd. be abstract. I call this The Palette of the Purple Grackle or Retribution, after he destroyed the Proth. Warbler’s nest if he did.”
(Hoard Historical Museum, Gail Roub Collection)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Keeping It Stupid

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

Keston Sutherland, quoting Adorno’s Minima Moralia:
Nothing is more unfitting for an intellectual resolved on practising what was earlier called philosophy, than to wish, in discussion, and one might almost say in argumentation, to be right. The very wish to be right [das Rechtbehaltenwollen], down to its subtlest form of logical reflection, is an expression of that spirit of self-preservation [Selbsterhaltung] which philosophy is precisely concerned to break down.
That’s out of Sutherland’s blistering little treatise Stupefaction: A Radical Anatomy of Phantoms (Seagull Books, 2011), “a study,” according to the author, “of poetic and philosophical practices that can be relied on to disclose the absolute destitution of truth in objects, uses of language, persons and lives.” Sutherland’s commentary suggests that Adorno is here working out “the literalization of ‘knowledge’ as satire”:
‘Knowledge’ is the defensive bourgeois intellectual who engages in an argument only in order to win it, and who confronts the unfamiliar object only so that he may assert mastery over it. As Walter Benjamin wrote in one of his earliest essays, ‘the philistine, you will have noted, only rejoices in every new meaninglessness. He remains in the right.’ The natural exercise of bourgeois consciousness is an exercise in being right. Selbsterhaltung and das Rechtbehaltenwollen mingle in one dead end of philistine compulsion. In the twilight of that false end, the ‘newly encountered’ unfamiliar thing takes on a specific object aspect: it is a reagent; its menacingly catalytic substance is not to be grasped but to be dropped on impulse.
Anything to avoid the contaminants of stupidity. For isn’t Adorno saying, in part, that philosophy ought be obliged to keep itself stupid? (The formula is that of A. R. Ammons—one I routinely quote hereabouts—a thing he only half-jokingly posited to me one day: “I think a poet ought to keep himself somewhat stupid.” A formula Williams, in Paterson agreeably reduces to: “Knowledge, the contaminant.”) If Adorno turns knowledge “against” philosophy, isn’t it at the prompting of poetry? See Stevens: “These / Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)” Exemplars abounding. There’s Herbert Read, in the 1951 Phases of English Poetry compressing a couple of paragraphs of Pater into a single remark:
All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music, and the perfection of poetry seems to depend in part on a certain suppression of mere subject, so that the meaning reaches us through ways not distinctly traceable by the understanding.
(Read is undoubtedly using J. W. Mackail’s mash-up and addendum of the famous Pater line, see Mackail’s 1914 Lectures on Poetry, the chapter called “The Poetry of Oxford.”) “Suppression of mere subject, so that the meaning reaches us through ways not distinctly traceable” sounds like Keats’s man “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason . . .” Or there’s Robert Duncan, writing to Robin Blaser in 1957:
Re: responsibility = the ability to response. To keep, that is, the touch green = necessary. In the poem this means shedding of effect. The right word is a tone (as in painting color) cluster, a felt stress in a recognized movement defining the time of the poem, a reference moving toward meaning (that might be non-sense or theme or janus-faced) which in turn has another tone (mood, mode) a proposition of a possible syntax (ORDER) (DISORDER). Achievement here comes neither from talent nor from genius—but from conviction (gnosis / feeling) in awareness of the actual order and disorder of the universe.
Not knowledge, nerve. (“Conviction.”) Duncan’s sense of the necessary imprecise, the slop and flux in the system (“the right word is a tone . . . cluster”), the need to “keep . . . green”—all an attempt to avoid “right” meaning, to keep the stasis of mastery at bay, to keep “moving toward meaning” (intendedly, an ever-diminishing prospect). Duncan quotes a lovely line out of some “notes to Olson’s evenings here”: “Return to the Effort: that our devotion be like the grass / to give blades of effort in the celebration of the rain.” Against das Rechtbehaltenwollen: unstoppable and volatile reagency. And, too, Duncan quotes Stevens’s “The Irrational Element in Poetry”:
“You have somehow to know the sound that is the exact sound; and you do in fact know, without knowing how. Your knowledge is irrational. In that sense life is mysterious; and if it is mysterious at all, I suppose that it is cosmically mysterious . . . What is true of sounds is true of everything: the feeling for words, without regard to their sound, for example. There is, in short, an unwritten rhetoric that is always changing and to which the poet must always be turning. That is the book in which he learns that the desire for literature or in any of the arts is a desire for freedom in life.”

Monday, March 19, 2012

Of Little Means

Pablo Picasso, “Woman with a Crow,” 1904

Weekend of attending’s brunt dispersal in busyness, that via negativa. (“We learn to prefer imperfect theories, and sentences which contain glimpses of truth, to digested systems . . .”) I do recall, walking the dog late Saturday night, a screech owl’s repeated soft whuttering up in a Norway spruce. That, and, yesterday, examining Picasso’s Femme au corbeau in the Toledo Art Museum, its hunch and merger, the way the woman’s pursed indifference wars with the angularity of her stance . . . The way the brilliant blue surround makes its own shape recalls another moment, leafing through John Szarkowski’s 1973 Looking at Photographs and seeing Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s “Black Cañon, Colorado River,” the white purity of its apparently cloudless sky. Szarkowski points to the technology: how the implacable luminosity is the result of method and means, the wet photographic plate’s over-sensitivity to blue light: “sky areas were thus automatically overexposed, and rendered as blank white.” (Admittedly, without the lit-up humped back of the man in the boat, I would not cotton so to that flat puzzle piece of sky, the man’s seeming burden and comfort. Landscape revealed by means of the “human position” . . .) I think again of Niedecker’s “Lake Superior”—its sense of man’s worldly adherency and belonging
          Inland then
beside the great granite
gneiss and the schists

to the redolent pondy lakes’
lilies, flag and Indian reed
“through which we successfully

The smooth black stone
I picked up in true source park
          the leaf beside it
once was stone

Why should we hurry
Is Niedecker’s line a sly counter to Emily Dickinson’s presumed final note (c. 1886, to cousins Louise and Frances Norcross): “Little Cousins, / Called Back. / Emily”—a way of suggesting “Back” is emphatically here? (Probably not.)

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, “Black Cañon, Colorado River, From Camp 8, Looking Above,” 1871

Friday, March 16, 2012

Niedecker Reading

Lorine Niedecker, 1903-1970

Out of the 1983 Peter Dent-edited compendium and memorial The Full Note: Lorine Niedecker, Niedecker to Kenneth Cox (23 November 1970), regarding reading aloud for Cid Corman:
At night before Cid left he got out his Cassette (a box that records—not a tape recorder—and then you can play it back) and I was getting very tired and had never read poems aloud to anyone but myself. But he thought I should try so clutching my magnifying glass I tried. I fell over one of the stanzas and nearly squashed it. Two things I did this fall for the first time: shot a can off a post thirty feet from me at the first shot, and read aloud. The reading didn’t go as well as the bullet. I got to thinking as I read how one can write for print and it means one thing and let it out of the mouth and into a listener to become something else e.g.: my Darwin commences:
His holy
                        mulled over
from the mouth is it holy or wholly or holey????

And in the Thomas Jefferson I have:
Martha (Patsy) stay
so aloud it calls for a bit of explanation perhaps—e.g. “Patsy, that is” (not spoiling anything really)

but not in defence of myself at all, I really do not approve too much of reading aloud or of listening to someone read. Unless it’s the ballad type of poetry with obvious rhyme and rhythm. For me poetry is a matter of planting it in deep, a filled silence, each person reading it a silence to be filled—he’ll have to come to the poems—both writer and reader—with an ear for all the poems can give and he’ll hear that as Beethoven heard tho deaf. I said this to Basil three years ago when he was here.
That reading turning up some years back, part of a Factory School compilation. The pieces: “Thomas Jefferson,” “The Ballad of Basil,” “Wild Man” (published as “Wilderness”), “Gerard Manley Hopkins” (published as “Otherwise”), “Nursery Rhyme,” “Three Americans,” “Thomas Jefferson Inside,” “Foreclosure,” “His Carpets Flowered,” “Darwin,” and Niedecker’s answer to a Corman-posed query about “making more poems” lately (“the fact that I’m sixty-seven years old . . . and if I’m going to do it some more, I’d better get to it”).

Lorine Niedecker reading

See, too, Niedecker’s note (28 August 1969) to Cox regarding reading Zukofsky’s Catullus aloud:
I’ve been preoccupied with the LXIV Catullus of Louie and Celia Zukofsky in the July Poetry. I’ve seen most of the other Cats (Origin, Poetry)—(the book will be out Oct. 3, Grossman, NY) but I think this Cat has more instinctive and intelligent wiles than any of the others. I read it aloud and stumble and get stuck then I read it chanting and pretty soon I get it. Adjectives stand there (adjective sense) like immovable nouns but they actually move as one reads. (There’s no sleeping thru this!) Sometimes there are lines of comparatively limpid beauty.
The opening lines of Catullus’s “Peliaco quondam prognatae uertice pinus . . .” (Read it out loud.):

Pelion could one time prong its top worthy keel in pines
ancestor lugged clear to Neptune in his sea purr on thus
to Phasis what flood tides on the fees of Aeetes,
came elect young ones ace, Argive eye robe awry pubes,
aureate time hoped on there’s Colchis afar to raid pelt home,
asea soon what deep salt sough hit at the careerer poop in
cerulean currents abeyant knees a fir oar palm ease;
Divine Goddess retaining on summits orbs of her fortress
inspired levity made ’t volitant hum flaming wind courier,
pinewood conjoint gains in flexed keel text a careening.
Allow that rude course so primed and imbued Amphitrite then.
      Wild sea mull ache rose throe wind tossing prow scudded ichor,
turned on the rowing oar spume wisp in canted wave under,
emerge serry fret the candent way gurgle of welters
a choir who eye moonstruck—Nereides admire Wonders.
I’ll lay that who’ll lay odds we daren’t, lucky marine eyes
mortal ace o cool lease knew that day corporal Nymph eyes
new trick tiniest extant as who gurgled there can know.
T’ my Thetis this Peleus incandesced fair thru his armor,
t’ my Thetis human knows none despised hymeneals,
t’ my Thetis the Father Himself would join them Peleus sense it.
O names that I hope to, sage lore whom time bore then happy
heroes aye salvé, the Gods’ own gens, o benign mothers,
progenies aye salvé to you in turn salvé the benign arm,
voice go so I pay my own voice harmony compel I bōw:
take it how dear your song sings in me tide days felicitous pine torch,
Thessaly aye column man Peleus, you whom Jupiter Himself,
Himself so chose Divine Genitor conceded a marriage.
Did not Thetis twine you what, pool care rim on—Nereus’ heir then?
Did not sublime Tēthys consent that granddaughter nap then,
Okeanos choir marry totalling ample clasp of our orb home?
      Wish small o hoped hour infinite time poring look who’s
at their wedding, domain convening all who frequented
Thessaly, a palace there light and the ray of the courted:
donors faring presents, declared in gold and in virtue.
Deserted their Cieros—link once to Phthiotica Tempe,
Crannon is Quiet Homes—and moat and wall of Larissa,
Pharsalian cohort, Pharsalia takes to frequént haunt.
Rural clod is no more, molesting collars yoke no steers,
none humbles or clears his poor garden vine with a rake’s thrusts,
none flails at thinning out fronded tall row or arbors’ umbrage,
none glebe bound prove one old bull dragged earth here and tore it,
squalid a desert's ruby gone in for rust ploughs a rot trees.
Out of the verbiage, the giddy delight of: “what deep salt sough hit at the careerer poop . . .” That, and the lines beginning “Rural clod is no more . . .”

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dahlberg / Read

Herbert Read, 1893-1968

Made buttery by sleep-lack. (Up half the night rummaging through quotidian inconsequents, unintelligibly, uselessly . . . See William Dunbar: “This waverand warldis wretchidnes, / The failyeand and frutles bissines, / The mispent tyme, the service vane, For to considder is ane pane . . .”) Succumbing to the gross sublunary lutte, mean terrestrial dullardry. Like Edward Dahlberg, “I want to go to the sea, write in the morning, bathe in the afternoon.” (Letter to Jonathan Williams: 22 July 1960.) Against Dahlberg’s raillery and banter—Harold Rosenberg summed it up thus: “The Dahlbergian stance puts on notice those in whom nobility, style, persistence, and other similarly arbitrary qualities are lacking that, however correct and useful their ideas, they belong to some other profession than literature”—Herbert Read’s humility and finesse. In the joint Truth Is More Sacred: A Critical Exchange on Modern Literature Dahlberg’s T. S. Eliot—“mungrell versifier,” “cairn of spleen,” “St. John the Baptist of the mediocre,” “a disembodied nature”—“sang his senilia when he was young, and . . . has been a dying swan for fifty years.” Dahlberg’s routine flyting-taunt: “Eliot’s verse has never been virile and for this cause he is landless; viewing nature with a small, listless eye.” And, the Kansas City orphan mocks Eliot’s pretension and flight:
Eliot has followed Henry James’s footsteps. Like James, he left the land of the Yahoos for the literary “middens and piggeries” of London. What is droll is that Eliot’s work is glutted with the phrases of the American guttersnipe. Why leave the United States to be rid of its vulgarities in order to be a bad St. Louis poet abroad?”
Read’s reply turns around the way one’s initial reading of a thing marks it—and one—in perpetuo and makes nostalgia a rarely loud-sounded note of one’s critical “stand.” Worth repeating at length. Read begins by talking of the visceral poke of reading contemporaneously one’s “own,” and what “is not speculative, but ‘felt along the nerves’”:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain . . .
      To read those lines, and the 429 lines that follow, for the first time, is an authentic and incomparable poetic experience—incomparable, because even the finest lines of Shakespeare or Baudelaire cannot be experienced with the same actuality—the same personal application. Eliot was the prophetic poet of our time, projecting the images of our guilt and remorse, accusing our consciousness of corruption, and recalling us to “the Peace which passeth understanding.”
      I have never sought to dissolve the unity of that first overwhelming impression. Whether the poem affected me in any deep metaphysical sense I doubt: I was too interested in the created phenomenon, in the creative miracle; for what Eliot proved, to a younger poet, was that the language could be reanimated; and what the critics even at that time called its Alexandrianism (one of them spoke of “the maggots that breed in the corruption of poetry”) was barbaric splendor in my unwearied eyes. Even now, when I am more instructed and therefore less receptive, I read the foxed pages with nostalgic emotion.
      Nostalgia! I saw some reference to it lately, berating it as a literary sin. Half the literature in the world is nostalgic, for we seek continually to recover our lost innocence—and this is perhaps the secret of style. Most of our days we thing, speak and write in a demotic jargon, the currency of the mob, worn smooth for easy gossip and discourse. To find new currency for new perceptions and thoughts is the task of an uncorrupted consciousness—new metal, new moulds, a fresh minting for each occasion. It is a task demanding more concentration than most of us can command, but we can sometimes by memory recover what I would call first occasions, when events impinge on the consciousness for the first time and for the first time we formulate the appropriate verbal icons. Such events are often far to seek, through thorns and thickets of conventional speech, and when they shine out of the past, we then recognize them with emotion. Such emotion is nostalgic—the return of the prodigal sensibility.

      You may accuse me of avoiding the issue by concentrating on one poem of Eliot’s but this poem is the point de repère for the whole of modern poetry, just as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon is the point de repère for the whole of modern painting. One can find the origins of Eliot’s poetic diction in Elizabethan blank verse or in Laforgue (just as one can find the origins of Picasso’s style in African sculpture or the paintings of Cezanne), but at this point a fusion takes place, a new symbolic imagery is created, the unknown becomes known.
Against the nostalgia (its golden sempiternal realm of possibility), loss inevitably (mechanically) raises its hammer-forged grimace, its human wares dinged and lustreless. The story of every poetic “movement.” Read:
We were all on tip-toe at the time, ready to welcome some “vast image out of Spiritus Mundi.” By now it seems there has been a miscarriage: the image has been shattered by war and tyranny, and these poets, who should have heralded a Renaissance, are themselves sunk into reaction or apathy, and their works have become thesis fodder for American critics.
      It is my faith that eventually our poets will return to that “ceremony of innocence”; otherwise I see no possibility of a revival of poetry or any other art. But my faith grows dim. It is not that things continue to fall apart: on the contrary, there is a consolidation of ignorance, superstition and that ideal of comfort which to Burckhardt meant the end of our Western European culture. Writing in March 1873, eighty-six years ago, he prophesied that our art and science (but he did not mean our science) would have the greatest difficulty in preventing themselves from sinking into a mere branch of urban money-making. The utmost effort and self-denial will be necessary, he said, if art and science are to remain creatively independent in view of the relation in which they stand to the daily press, to cosmopolitan traffic, to world exhibitions. All these menaces have, since Burckhardt’s time, increased a thousand-fold, and to them we have added deterrents of which he could have had no conception—air traffic, radio and television. The activity of poetry is now reduced to inconceivable insignificance; and to try and woo the indifferent mob . . . is a vain effort.
Read’s consolatory nod to Dahlberg at the end:
      You suffer this neglect more than most of your contemporaries, and that is because you do not make the compromises with the armies of ignorance that Eliot has made, that I have made, that most of us make. I don’t know anything about the consolations of martyrdom, but when I think of the humility of Blake, or the voluntary sacrifice of Hopkins, or the accepted obscurity of Emily Dickinson, then I realize that these consolations are real. It is the method of Charity, said Sir Thomas Browne, to suffer without reaction; it is the method of the great poet to write in the sure knowledge that a bright image never loses its lustre, though it be buried in the garbage of a doomed civilization.
Dahlberg, unconvinced and unassuaged: “let us not yearn for the books that deceived us when we were chatterboxes of literature . . .”